Evidence of the Eyes: An Interview with Alexander Eliot

In the landmark 1967/8 documentary, The  Secret  of  Michelangelo,  Every  Man’s  Dream, Alexander Eliot, painter and former art critic and editor for Time magazine states that “almost everything we saw on the barrel  vault  came  clearly  from  Michelangelo’s  own  inspired  hand.  There  are  passages  of  the  finest,  the   most  delicately  incisive  draughtsmanship  imaginable.”  The film, produced by Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation, directed by Milton Fruchtman, written by Alexander Eliot and narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell, provided a brief, one hour tour of the expansive Sistine ceiling. Through the use of close-ups, audiences were presented with details of the fresco never seen before, details that were impossible to grasp at great distance.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alexander Eliot about the film, the chapel, and his fight against the cleaning, which began in 1981. –

See the entire interview here.

Alexander Eliot April 28, 1919 – April 23, 2015

“Life is a fatal adventure. It can only have one end. So why not make it as far-ranging and free as possible?” 

– Alexander Eliot

90th birthday, with his grandchildren
90th birthday, with his grandchildren

Alexander Eliot, who passed away April 23, 2015, was the author of eighteen published books, including books on art, mythology, history, and novels. He was also the author of hundreds of essays, published in magazines as varied as The Eastern Buddhist and England’s Systematics, and most well-known, his weekly column when he was the art editor of Time Magazine.

Alex came from a stream of aristocratic educators, the younger son of an English lord who arrived in Plymouth in 1632. All of his direct male ancestors were Harvard-educated, and his great-grandfather was the president of Harvard for fifty years. But in 1937, instead of attending Harvard, he drove across the country in an old Ford to live with the Navajos in New Mexico. Since Art was his great love, on his return, instead of going to Harvard, he chose to attend the quirky little Black Mountain College so that he could study with Josef Albers.

agustusjohn1Alex was art editor for Time Magazine from 1945 to 1960.

As art editor, he knew most artists who lived in New York during his tenure at Time Magazine, but he also had encounters with artists abroad. In his memoir (as yet unpublished) he recounts stories about Matisse’s most important advice to him, talking to Picasso on the beach, Salvador Dali in the elevator (Salvador became a family friend in part because Alex’s wife, Jane, who had lived several years in Spain as a girl, could speak to him in Catalan).

In 1959 he was awarded Guggenheim Fellowship, and we lived in Spain for a year. There he wrote Sight and Insight – on how to ‘see’ art. While he was there, he visited Delphi in Greece, and, along with his wife Jane, questioned why they should return to the hectic, stressful race of Manhattan magazine publishing when he could raise his family in Greece.

 

Alexander Eliot with his children in Greece
Alexander Eliot with his children in Greece
Sight and Insight (1959)
Sight and Insight (1959)

Within a year, he’d retired from Time, hopped on a Greek freighter and taken his family back to Greece. There they lived several years, living in the mountains north of Athens, and later in a small fishing village on the island of Corfu, and going on many excursions around Europe and the Middle East. Eventually, the family boarded a Yugoslav freighter for a slow, exotic journey through the Red Sea, around the Indian Continent, to Malaysia, Indonesia, and all the way to Osaka, Japan. The next year they moved to Rome, Italy, for a few years, and then settled in Sussex, England. 1n 1975 he received a fellowship to study Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan.

Jane & Alex Eliot in Northampton, MA
Jane & Alex Eliot in Northampton, MA

In 1968, when he lived in Rome, he and Jane spent six weeks in the Sistine Chapel to research a documentary on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. Their ‘research’ was done by having a scaffold built on wheels that they could lie on top of: this way they could be as close to Michelangelo’s work as he was himself; and to study and talk about the stories that he depicted on the ceiling. The hour-long documentary, “The Secret of Michelangelo – Every Man’s Dream,” was shown on ABC primetime (a Tuesday night, at 7 p.m.) but Alex insisted there not be any commercial interruptions, because the work had to be experienced in its entirety! And the network agreed.

In 1987, Alex moved to Venice Beach, CA, where he and Jane would stroll every morning for breakfast on the boardwalk.

In Greece
In Greece

Here’s what the inspired and inspiring artist Gregg Chadwick says about Alex and Jane Eliot: “In Japan, individuals of extraordinary talent and vision are recognized as living national treasures as they live out their later years. The American intellectual couple Alexander and Jane Eliot should be given honorary Japanese citizenship and awarded that honor. Recently when I met with Alex and Jane in their warm Venice bungalow I was struck by their graciousness and humility. The front room is crowded with treasures gathered from their years together. And their minds are full of some of the twentieth century’s most important memories.

In his book Sight and Insight Alexander Eliot describes a Chinese painter who, upon completing his masterwork, paints a door in the foreground, opens that door – walks through and is never seen again. I expect Alex and Jane to find that door and to walk through together leaving their art and writings as clues for us to find our own path.”

 

From his bio that’s in Who’s Who in America:

Gregg Chadwick: Study for a Portrait of Alex Eliot
Gregg Chadwick: Study for a Portrait of Alex Eliot

ELIOT, ALEXANDER, writer; born Cambridge, Mass., April 28, 1919; son of Samuel Atkins, Jr. and Ethel Cook Eliot; married Jane Winslow Knapp, May 3, 1952; children: May Rose, Jefferson, Winslow.  Student, Black Mountain College, 1936-38. Boston Museum School, 1938-39. Director, Pinkney Street Artists Alliance, Boston, 1940-41; asst. to producer March of Time newsreel, 1941-42; asst. dir films Office of War info., 1942-44; art editor Time Magazine, 1945-1960; Prof. emeritus program Hampshire College, 1977; Editor Parabola Magazine 1995-96; contributing editor Harvard Magazine, 1988-1995; author of Proud Youth, Three Hundred Years of American Painting, Sight and Insight, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, Greece, Love Play, Creatures of Arcadia, Socrates, A Concise History of Greece, Myths, Zen Edge, Fisher’s Guide to Greece, Abraham Lincoln, The Universal Myths, The Global Myths, The Timeless Myths; film (with Jane Winslow Eliot) The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream; Guggenheim fellow, 1960; Japan Foundation senior fellow 1975; Member of the Century Association and Dutch Treat Club, NYC. “The moon, the planets, pass around my heart. The sun shines into me, and in me as well. Yet what am I? A goose-pimpled crazy on a skewed glass bicycle, continually crashing into scribbled walls. And this moment, this being is the thing.”

In-Kyoto-Japan-1964

New York Times Obituary

The Secret of Michelangelo: Every Man’s Dream – Alexander & Jane Eliot


Written by Alexander Eliot, The Secret of Michelangelo: Every Man’s Dream an hour long special, appeared on ABC prime time television Dec. 6, 1968 9:30-10:30 p.m. Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell narrate this documentary on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.

In this promotional intro, you can see Jane and Alex climbing the scaffold to the ceiling.

Alexander Eliot – Alan Harrington

My lanky, sallow, saturnine friend Alan Harrington had the distantly bemused air of a desert dweller. Alan’s mother was an anthropologist, working among  America’s Southwest Indian tribes, so I wondered whether he might be half Indian. If so, he never mentioned it. Continue reading “Alexander Eliot – Alan Harrington”