Monday, July 10, 2006


Bend it Like the The Times: Its Flawed Kick at Beck

Beck is ba-a-a-ack!

Always shoot-from-the-hip controversial, James Beck invariably raises the eyebrows and the ire of the art establishment that he so often inveighs against. He often undercuts his own credibility with hyperbole.

So when Beck challenged the attribution to Duccio of the Metropolitan Museum's recently acquired, very costly Madonna and Child, the NY Times tapped the big man in Duccio scholarship, Luciano Bellosi of the University of Sienna, to debunk the Columbia art history professor's latest screed.

"I have never doubted that it was a masterpiece by Duccio," Bellosi told Robin Pogrebin in a phone interview.

There's only one problem, unmentioned by Pogrebin: Luciano Bellosi has never---not even once---set eyes on that Duccio!

That was the first thing I asked him when I got him on the phone in Italy today. Even Beck had told me that Bellosi was the go-to expert on this subject. And here's what that expert had to say:

No, unfortunately I didn't see it with my own eyes, only by photographs....I know it is a very important question. It is always necessary to see the works of art in reality to be sure what they are....Art historians like Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy [of the Met] are very capable to judge the works of art with their eyes. I know their capacity. I trust in them for that.

The painting had been hidden away in private collections for many years, only available for public viewing since it was acquired by the Met in 2004 for a reported $45-50 million. But unlike Bellosi, Beck HAS carefully eyeballed the work, and I have enough wary respect for him to think that he needs to be heard, if not unquestionably believed. I thought he was right in bucking a 1996 front-page NY Times article, by deflating the discovery of the so-called Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue (about which I wrote for both the Wall Street Journal and Art in America magazine).

And when I watched a television documentary about the cleaning of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, I cringed as I saw subtle modeling and muscular definition being swabbed away, leaving behind flat, garish patches of color. (Beck waged a long, losing battle against that project.)

So, suspending Met-induced disbelief, I have read with interest an advance copy of the entire chapter from Beck's forthcoming book that questions the attribution of the museum's much praised acquisition.


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