Retrospective: The Unveiling of the Sistine Chapel Restoration

And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

June 12, 1915.

June 12, 1915.

100 Years Ago

“London Letter,”
by L. G.-S.

When the ill-fated Lusitania set sail, she numbered among her passengers many prominent members of the London art world, the date of her departure coinciding with the time of year when dealers who have been transacting business in America, return home and when potential buyers consider a visit to England well-timed. The ART NEWS has recorded the lives of Sir Hugh Lane, Edward Gorer, Martin Van Straaten, Albert Smith, George Letts and Charles F. Fowles, and has told the rescue of Frank Partridge, who was at first reported as among those who drowned.


Feeling is running high just now in regard to the administration of the Chantrey Bequest, which is noted for acquiring each year from the Royal Academy work, always among the least distinguished among the exhibits. Unfortunately the late Mr. Chantrey placed the purchasing power in the hands of the council of the Academy, an arrangement which has been provocative of the greatest dissatisfaction among competent art connoisseurs. If, as is proposed, by the National Gallery Committee, this fund could be administered on behalf of the Tate Gallery as a separate endowment, there might be some likelihood of the nation acquiring a really representative collection of modern art, in place of the miscellaneous and mediocre one on which the money is now expended. That there will eventually be a drastic readjustment of the Trust is fairly certain but this will not be achieved without the most strenuous resistance on the part of those who now administer it.

June 8, 1940.

June 8, 1940.

75 Years Ago

“Show of American Abstract Painters and Architects,”
by James W. Lane

The decision of American abstract painters to admit architects as members and exhibitors to their group cannot but have been a salutary effect, since the work of the abstract painters, as can be seen in their show now at the Fine Arts Gallery, so often is based upon architectural principles. Gropius, for example, is represented in this exhibition by a photograph of his own house in Lincoln, Mass., the framework of which is in a handsome redwood sheathing. In collaboration with Marcel Breuer he also did the house for Josephine Haggerty at Cohasset, of which there is a photographic replica. Neutra is represented by an actual model for a large garage done for a California city.

Some of them are positively resolute and radiant in design and color, while to a second and inferior class belong those that have sacrificed firmness of line and balance of color to foggy and amorphous effects, ending up with the foggy confusion that cluttered objects are apt to create.

Summer 1965.

Summer 1965.

50 Years Ago

“Giacometti: In the Vicinity of the Impossible,”
by Mercedes Matter

Once Giacometti took that step his life became compressed into one continuous act, the act of seeing. “Art is only a means of seeing. Although I look, everything surpasses me, amazes me, and I do not know exactly what I see. It’s too complex. So one has to try to copy, quite simply to become a little more aware of what one sees. It’s as though reality were behind curtains…there is still another…always another. But I have the impression, or the illusion, that I make progress each day. It is this that makes me act, as though one ought absolutely to get to understand the kernel of life.”

Those ten years before had been an interruption in this pursuit for, he realized, he had only been making objects. But objects are not works of art, he says. An object, like a bottle, is perfect; a work of art can never be perfect, since it only represents a particular vision, one view of reality, and so many others are equally valid. But a bottle breaks and it is nothing. A work of art, broken, damaged, so long as it still projects the vision it represents, continues to exist. An object does not represent a vision, it is a thing in itself. And this he rejected totally, once and for all. “I am persuaded that painting is only an illusion. The reality of painting is the canvas. But a painting can only represent what it isn’t . . . that is, the illusion of something else.”

Summer 1990.

Summer 1990.

25 Years Ago

“Hue and Cry,”
by Sylvia Hochfield

Vatican City. It took Michelangelo four years, from 1508 to 1512, to paint the Sistine Ceiling. It has taken Vatican restorers a decade to clean it. Unlike the artist, the restorers have worked in the glare of publicity, their every move preserved on film by Japanese television cameras and their results constantly subjected to criticism.
. . .
The Vatican team says that it has revealed Michelangelo’s true colors, which have been hidden for centuries behind a veil of grime compounded of dust and greasy residue of smoke and incense from candles and braziers. Previous restorers complicated the problem when they tried to revitalize the disappearing colors by adding layers of glue varnish, which in turn darkened and further obscured the ceiling’s original brilliance. Some critics, notably Professor James Beck of Columbia University, still insist that the cleaning was unnecessary, but the Vatican’s scientific experts said they had no choice because the substances applied by previous restorers were slowly ruining the frescoes by causing the color to flake off the plaster. The situation, they warned, was becoming uncontrollable.

Now that the scaffolding has been removed and the full expanse of the ceiling is visible again, it gives a very different impression than it did in the past. That has been extremely disturbing to some. “The most common complaint is that these colors are too strong,” said chief restorer Gianluigi Colalucci, “but they are the colors of that period.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 96.

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