"The Best Art In The World"
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer
November 13, 2017 – February 12, 2018
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
By DAVID AMBROSE, DEC. 2017
“The artist should have compasses in his eyes and not in his hands, for the hands work but the eyes judge.”
Pity poor Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Once again the demons of censorship circle around him like an angry mob through no fault of his own. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, curated by Carmen C. Bambach, should rightfully be championed as a watershed exhibition of drawings by the Italian Renaissance master as it is, for these judging eyes, one of the most ambitious shows ever mounted by a museum anywhere on this planet. It presents 133 drawings by the hand of Michelangelo alone. But a backlash against another painting in the Met’s permanent collection by Balthus, Theresa Dreaming (1938), of a sunbathed young girl daydreaming with her eyes closed, left leg elevated and bent at the knee, revealing a sliver of her white panties, threatens to steal some of the show’s thunder. While the pose of the adolescent girl in the Balthus may be regarded as provocative and obscene by some (a petition has been circulated calling for its removal from display), it bears a striking resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Night from the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy (an even closer comparison can be found with the nude woman in Balthus’s The Room from 1952-1954).
So where do we literally and figuratively draw the line? You’d think in nearly 500 years mankind would have learned the difference between art and obscenity; like night and day or a nightmare and a daydream. But even today the eyes of judgment can be clouded; churning like the serpentine curls of wind-wiped drapery added by Daniele da Volterra to Michelangelo’s nudes in his Last Judgment (1536-1541) answering the call for censorship. By the time Michelangelo, then in his sixties, had begun his fresco, the beauty of the human form and its designs on procreation had gone into hiding. Such can be the penalty of a living a long life: what was once cherished can become chastised.
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer also comes on the heels of the Met’s Adrian Villar Rojas’ rooftop sculpture garden installation, The Theater of Disappearance, a hi-tech summertime cultural extravaganza meant to question the role of the “museum” in contemporary discourse. Well, allow me to reassure you that Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer is more than capable of answering that question, because shows like this one are exactly the reason why museums exist in the first place. In this decidedly low-tech exhibition, the best 3-D imaging device in use was located firmly inside Michelangelo’s skull. The star power of the show is derived from a group of mostly small ink and chalk drawings on paper. Imagine that?
In a way, the Met's exhibition is a virtual one, since Michelangelo’s principal activities--sculpture, painting and architectural design--are for the most part left behind in Italy. To its credit, the show doesn’t try to tell a story bigger than it is capable of. The exhibition celebrates the man with only an eyedropper-full of his masterworks, but his gift to the graphic arts is so astounding that if this was the only Michelangelo that we knew, on sheets of timeworn paper, it would still guarantee him a place in the pantheon of artistic immortality.
The exhibition was eight years in the making (the Met is the only venue) and comes with a handsome catalog written by Bambach and buttressed with five additional scholarly essays. It lays bare both the man and the myth; a myth the artist himself did his best to foster and control both in his lifetime and even after it. The exhibition attempts to recreate the hive activity of the Renaissance studio workshop and begins with Michelangelo’s earliest drawings as a studio apprentice in the shop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, continuing to his own instructional drawings for his workshop and demonstration drawings for his patrons, along with a suite of standalone drawings executed for beloved patrons and friends that are among some the most prized pieces of paper in the world. There are even working drawings, represented by two gigantic fresco cartoons from the Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. Patched together like the remains of a quilt from God’s own cedar closet, they manage to stop you in your tracks.
The show unfolds chronologically with thematic threads that tie together bodies of work, grouped in individual gallery spaces with charcoal gray walls. The suggestion that Michelangelo is represented by 133 drawings does seem to be a bit of a misnomer, since virtually all of the sheets of paper have multiple exchanges between more than one drawing. Many also have drawings on both sides as well as rotating views, shifts in compositional groupings, limbs in search of a proper pose and symbolism, evolving heads carrying the weight of emotional content, architectural proposition and order and the master-student/apprentice relationship. Michelangelo treats the empty negative spaces on the paper like pieces of raw marble: a place where he carves out answers both for immediate use and for future reference, his hatch lines acting like the combed scrapes of a toothed marble chisel.
We are introduced to the young Michelangelo at entry level through the shop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448/49-1494) who himself is represented by a series of elegant hatch line drawings and pen and ink studies. The earliest work by the hand of Michelangelo is the recently attributed painted copy after Martin Schongauer’s black and white engraving of the Torment of Saint Anthony (ca. 1487-1488) that acts like a page torn from a coloring book for gifted children and was made when the artist was about 13, perhaps before having formally joined Ghirlandaio’s shop. The subject of the engraving is a group of interlocking demonic creatures wrestling with Saint Anthony and lifting him off the ground, looking like a decorated letter inflated for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that has become unmoored from its printed page. Michelangelo’s tour de force egg tempera copy on poplar panel wraps layers of fleshy color around the inky bones of the print, surrendering somewhat to the limits of his youthful imagination in the simplified invented landscape portrayed in the subtle aerial perspective not found in the original.
Next we see the young artist grappling with the fresco figures painted by Giotto and Masaccio--his attraction to both Renaissance masters found in their weighty, rock solid forms minus the window dressing of superfluous detail. Michelangelo uses his ink line to chisel out these forms in low relief in the Studies of Three Standing Men in Cloaks (ca. 1492-1496). The artist allows the paper to breathe around the two background figures as hatching and crosshatching lines no longer strap the forms to the paper like an oxygen mask, but instead help define a deeper space.
Michelangelo’s own voice begins to be heard in one of the early gems of the show, Sketches of the Virgin, the Christ Child Reclining on a Cushion, and Other Infants (1495-1500). In this ink study, a group of infants tumble down the left side of the picture plane like a group of Florentine children playing on the stairs of an apartment building. In two separate profile portraits, the Virgin shifts her eyes from the present to the future with a simple nod of the head, while the infant Jesus looks up at her while raising both his arms perhaps in anticipation of the future cross he will bear. An old man (Saint Joseph?), peers up at the Virgin from behind the Christ Child through a haze of ink washes and hatch lines. The pose of the Christ Child bear a striking resemblance to the seated Madonna in the Holy Family of the Doni Tondo (ca. 1506-1508), only seen in mirror image.
The heroic, athletic male nude makes an Olympian entrance in a series of drawings based on Michelangelo’s lost cartoon for the Battle of Cascina for a fresco of the wall of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. In the haunting Study of a Male Torso Seen from the Back (ca. 1504), a soldier raises a spear or flag staff in his left hand while his right hand disappears into the distance of evaporating line work. The drawing heaves and sighs like a living organism. It is a perfect example of Michelangelo’s engagement with both the complexity of human anatomy while at the same time confirming his interest in the classical male nude of Hellenistic Greek sculpture. The undulating topography of the black chalk back gives the figure a sculptural presence with gouache used to polish highlights on the surface. Provided for comparison is Sebastiano da Sangallo’s faithfully painted grisaille Copy after the Central Episode of the Bathers in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (ca. 1540). In the copy, virtually all of the air and emotion has been siphoned off as the painting acts as a great historical marker, but at the same time its freeze-dried technical shortcomings elevate Michelangelo above his contemporaries.
The show then shifts to Michelangelo as architect and designer as he lays his foundations in both Rome and Florence. In his Demonstration Drawing for the 1505 Design of the Tomb of Pope Julius II in brown ink and lead point, a three tiered wall tomb design, sculptural figures--many whose poses bear a striking resemblance to those found in the Sistine Chapel--guard each stage of the ascension of Pope Julius ll. At the earthbound ground level--in a testament to the generosity of the pope in life--two angels shake a fruit tree (acorn) to feed a group of figures gathered below in the foreground. At the second level, grieving angels prop up Julius’s head and shoulders as he lies in state offering his soul to the Madonna and Child in their heavenly niche above.
In the Sketches in Plan and Elevation for a Double Walled Tomb in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo (ca. 1520-1530), Michelangelo pivots the sheet ninety degrees as the columns and their bases spill like LEGOs from heaven. In Draft in Prose for a Poem and Sketches of Profiles for Bases of Pilasters in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo (1520-1530), his quill pen handwriting is carved into the paper with the exactitude of a chisel. His search for figures in stone takes a U-turn back from utilitarian to flesh and blood with the emergence of a screaming head at the base of a Doric column, a fitting resolution for a sculptor who spent a lifetime freeing figures from marble.
The most dramatic room in the exhibition is afforded to the studies for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) which acts as the nerve center for the entire exhibition. The gallery’s main artery has the feel of a central nave and is flanked by spiritual toll booths in the shape of lecterns capped with framed double-sided drawings. Above our heads glows a backlit, scaled down reproduction of the actual frescoed ceiling--a little like a bug zapper on a hot summer night--that alleviates a few of the exhibition's traffic flow problems. A life-size model of the type of scaffolding used in the frescoes creation adds a sense of monumentality to the task at hand.
In the black chalk Study for the Head of the Cumaean Sybil on the Sistine Ceiling, parallel lines of force hastily deliver the portrait head of a prophetess with a furrowed brow, caught with her lips parted as if in midsentence. In the Two Studies for an Outstretched Arm (recto), Two Sketches of Male Nudes on Horseback for the Battle of Cascina, Large-Scale Figural Study (verso), repurposed paper allows for ghosted nude figures on horseback to bleed through the verso side and straddle the forearms of those two beckoning right arms while a thumb and three fingers gallop after the solution offered by a questioning pair of index fingers.
The exhibition then shifts in tone, moving from the public square to a more private group of drawings, among them the Divine Heads many of which were given as gifts by Michelangelo. While much of the work to this point had been driven at the behest of power, these drawings come with a different motivation: principally, love and desire. As Michelangelo’s temperament towards his paper changes, so does his touch. He appears to caress the paper more with his fingertips--the places where emotions and thoughts can escape--rather than from the shoulder, forearm and bicep--places where orders are delivered and fulfilled. The softness of these drawings almost feels melted or fused into the paper, more warm-blooded and less about cold marble or fresco walls. The desire of the flesh will eventually lead him to the desire of the soul.
In Michelangelo’s Cleopatra in Bust Length (1530-33), the protagonist seems to barely notice as a snake bites her bare breast. Its tail curls and evaporates like a smoke ring echoing the twist of her elaborate corkscrew hair bun as it slowly unravels on top of her head. The pearl tips of her headdress rest against her cheeks and look like teardrops trickling from a fountain of soon to be departed youth. In the remarkable Study for the Three Labors of Hercules (1530-33), the actions of Hercules scatter like dust off the pages of a red chalk flipbook as he ages before our eyes. In the third act, the elder Hercules struggles with the seven snake heads of the Hydra in a pose reminiscent of the then-recently unearthed Laocoon and His Sons that had been found on Esquiline Hill in Rome and was a source of inspiration to many Renaissance artists (but chiefly to Michelangelo). In the ethereal Pieta for Vittoria Colonna (ca.1546)--buttressed by Giulio Bonasone’s print (1546)--the Virgin casts her eyes to the heavens and stretches out her arms as if pantomiming the crucifixion. She straddles the body of the now dead Christ for a second time, the body was once released from her womb in childbirth, and is now released to God the Father in death. The vertical shaft of the cross acts as a piece of telepathic timber carrying a quote from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: “They know not how much blood it costs.”
As Michelangelo enters his twilight years, he too casts his eyes aloft. The effects of old age and the toll on his body of a lifetime of manual labor made it difficult for him to liberate his imagination from chains of his now-trembling hands. The beauty, movement, strength, and sensuality of the triumphant figures of his youth are replaced by the anguish, strain, and struggle found in the late drawings. In Sketches of Figural Arrangements for the Resurrection of the Dead in the Last Judgment (recto), Figural Studies for the Last Judgment (verso) (ca. 1536-1541), a group of quivering figures cascades downward like the curtain of a waterfall, circling in a whirlpool below for delivery to the gates of hell. On the page’s verso, a diagrammatic figure divides the sheet, like a book spine, between legs, hands, and shoulders, as if a page had been culled from a body parts manual to instruct his studio workforce. In Figural Sketches, Mostly the Sleeping Apostles in the Agony in the Garden (ca. 1555), small, knotted, calligraphic figures battle a nightmare of guilt as Christ’s agony is transferred to their unconscious--and perhaps to Michelangelo’s--like storm clouds forming on the horizon.
For while Michelangelo spent nearly 90 years in pursuit of the art of perfection, he did his best to keep that pursuit--at least on paper--behind a shuttered Renaissance picture window, the shuttered window being his unfortunate habit of burning his drawings as a way to retain trade secrets and figural invention from his competitors. When that window was finally opened, what was found inside--other than a few drafts that he allowed to escape--were the charred embers of his struggle to achieve the unattainable.
One can only hope that while engaging in his act of self-censorship, Michelangelo had the good sense to pick the fireplace with a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, for if ever a servant of God in Rome had the right to petition the Lord on the behalf of the papacy it was Michelangelo. Luckily he left behind a few of those escaping drafts, because they form the core of this magnificent exhibition as they elevate the art of drawing to new heights, like a cloud of smoke rising up to God’s own doorstep. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.
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