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Of Hues and Chips and Ceiling Wax : SAYONARA, MICHELANGELO; The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged By Waldemar Januszczak (Addison-Wesley: $16.95; 207 pp.)

December 09, 1990|David Rieff | Rieff is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Book Review.

The restoration of Michelangelo's great frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City has been a contentious affair. To be sure, all restorations in our authenticity-hungry times are bound to excite ambivalence, particularly since, as most visually literate people are aware, previous generations' attempts at restoring the great masterpieces of Western art all too often succeeded in making them conform more to the spirit of the restorers' times than to the intentions of the artists who made them.

The 19th-Century painter and restorer, Viollet LeDuc, is only the most egregious example of the conservator as cultural vandal. In the case of the Sistine ceiling, which is generally regarded, to the extent that such hierarchies still make sense, as the single greatest accomplishment of the greatest artist of the Renaissance, even so seemingly straight-forward an act as a thorough cleaning was bound to provoke unease and disagreement. It is this debate that Waldemar Januszczak, a Polish-born British art critic and television executive, tries to evoke.

"Sayonara, Michelangelo" is, at bottom, a brief for the correctness of the Japanese-sponsored restoration. According to Januszczak, posterity has developed an entirely mistaken attitude toward the painter. The Michelangelo whom most people imagine when they think of the great Florentine is a myth, a murky amalgam of literally centuries of romantic mystification.

"The belief that Michelangelo's talent was Godlike," Januszczak writes, "is the chief distinguishing feature of the Michelangelo myth." From Vasari, who, in Januszczak's view, wrote the first sycophantic portrait of the artist in 1568, to the actor Charlton Heston, on the set of the film about the Sistine Chapel, "The Agony and the Ecstasy," saying to a journalist that he was "too small" (meaning not Godlike enough, Januszczak assures us) to play the painter, the myth has rolled on unchallenged, like some unstoppable press release.

According to this interpretation, scholars have been so mesmerized by Michelangelo's extra-human reputation that they have chosen to look at the artist's work with the same irrational slavishness. It has long been known that within a few years of the frescoes' completion, they already had darkened considerably. To those who favored restoration and cleaning, this was a strong argument for going ahead. Those who opposed it worried that Michelangelo had intended for this darkening to take place and insisted that in any case, the solutions the restorers were using removed not only the dirt of centuries but the last coat of varnish applied by the painter himself.

Januszczak, of course, comes down firmly on the side of the Vatican, accusing the critics, most of whom were American art historians, as well as a few art celebrities like Andy Warhol, of hewing to a vulgar image of genius, an "agony and ecstasy" version of art history. "The cleaning rumpus," Januszczak concludes, "was undertowed (sic) by a widely accepted assumption of how genius ought to look."

And about genius, Januszczak has strong views indeed. "As it happened," he declares, narrating his first visit to the restoration, "I did not believe in the existence of genius. I believed in greatness as a human condition that could be arrived at after much hard work and the energetic deployment of talent. I believed that one artist could achieve more than another in the same way that Boris Becker is a considerably better tennis player than others around him."

It would have been more helpful had these views been presented frankly, at the beginning of his book, rather than in the middle, for they put Januszczak's arguments in the context in which they belong: as a quarrel with the idea of art as being--or at least aspiring to--the divine, an idea that has informed most Western thinking on the subject, by philosophers and practitioners as much as by sycophants and romantics, at least since the Renaissance and possibly since antiquity.

If Januszczak wants to reduce all this to a misunderstanding, and claim that the great achievements of art are simply talent married to effort, that, of course, is his prerogative. But nowhere in "Sayonara, Michelangelo" does he argue this case except by assertions, wisecracks and one-liners. Most debunking is crude--that goes with the territory--but few examples of the form have been cruder than Januszczak's book.

The paradox is that one can absolutely agree with the appropriateness of the restoration of the frescoes without for a moment endorsing Januszczak's strictures on the nature of artistic creativity. Indeed, it is unlikely that the Italian and other European art historians who are cited in the book would be very comfortable with the idea of Michelangelo's enterprise as analogous to that of Boris Becker. If there is mystification involved, it is Januszczak's more than anyone else's.

The argument about the restoration is largely technical. Was a layer of varnish taken off along with the dirt or wasn't it? Do the restoring chemicals lighten or just clean? These are questions that can be argued with neither the pop flash nor the primitive behaviorism masking as aesthetics upon which Januszczak relied in this extremely silly book.

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