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Studies for Haman, 1511 – 12.
40.6 x 20.7cm. © British Museum

Closer to the master

Review by Corinna Lotz

More than any other form of art, drawings reveal in a direct way the thought process of the artist, the movement of the mind expressed through the touch of the pen, crayon, pencil, stylus, chalk or charcoal.

No doubt this is why Michelangelo kept his drawings shrouded in mystery. He never wanted them to be seen publicly and destroyed many hundreds shortly before his death. He only gave a few to his closest friends, lovers or co-thinkers.

And yet, despite their antiquity and different culture, these renderings of the human body fairly leap off the page. They can be seen as the precursors to the cult of the perfect body expressed in today’s mass adoration of footballers, athletes or gymnasts. Michelangelo’s black chalk drawing of the Resurrection, for example, in which the figure of Christ rises out of the grave, depicts a graceful nude body whirling upwards just like an ice skater executing a toe-spin.

Ninety five drawings of the master’s drawings are on view in the British Museum, supplemented by a superb portrait head in bronze by Daniele de Volterra and photographs of architecture and paintings. They allow us to trace the artist’s progress, from his apprenticeship at the age of 12 in 1487 to his last drawings made shortly before his death in 1564.

The detailed studies can be appreciated as works of art in their own right, as well as a steps in a complex process. Most of them are links in a chain of development which would lead, to a “completed” work, such as a sculptural complex or fresco painting, many of them for the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Study for Adam, c.1510-11. Study for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel 19.3 by 25.9 cm. © British Museum

The brightly-restored Sistine Chapel frescos are projected on to screens, alongside the detailed sketches in which Michelangelo worked out compositions and details of figures. The BM’s holdings are brought together with those of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Teyler Museum in Haarlem, Holland to give an overview of Michelangelo’s work not seen in London for at least 30 years.

While the drawings held in the Museum’s print room are accessible free of charge to serious students, this well-designed show makes them available in a way not previously possible through the use of double-sided display cabinets and digital imaging. The only barrier is the stiff admission charge of £10. Due to the low level of government subsidy, charging for public holdings is now viewed as a source of fundraising by state-owned museums.

Like all works on paper, these are fragile objects which can only bear short periods of dim light. But this difficulty is overcome by the digitised projection of the drawings on to screens in the centre of the exhibition space. A newly-produced 40-minute film on DVD means that we can also obtain a detailed, virtual “first-hand” view of the artist’s work at home. Before now, it would have been impossible to obtain such superb reproductions, and, for example to rotate a sheet of paper so that each part can be appreciated.

A seated male nude, c.1511.
© the Teyler Museum, Haarlem, Holland

Yet for all the superb use of technology, demonstrating how Michelangelo planned and executed his great works, the artist’s development is seen in a rather isolated way. Michelangelo is presented as a unique personality who was rather self-reflexive and introspective.

But he was nothing, if not a child of his time. And, over a very long life, he experienced the most tumultuous political and ideological upheavals – warring city republics in Italy during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. And, during the last period of his life, a new artistic style emerged - Mannerism - in response to the Roman Catholic Church’s reaction to the Reformation, which can also be seen as a “counter-Renaissance”.

One of the key features of the Italian Renaissance was the rediscovery of the pre-Christian art and philosophy of ancient Greece, including its pagan-republican ideals and its focus on the living movement of the human body. Michelangelo was shaped by this. He went on to transform the scientific and visual traditions of Florentine painting, espousing the philosophy of Neo-Platonism and its belief in the beauty of the body.

His chief patron, Pope Julius II, had his unique collection of Greek sculptures installed in the Vatican’s Belvedere courtyard just as Michelangelo was working on his first great commission, the statue of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son, known as the Pietà.

The opening years of the 16th century saw an unbelievably energetic young artist, full of fiery confidence. This is shown in the energy of the studies for the Sistine chapel frescoes as well as the execution of the paintings themselves, under exceptionally difficult physical conditions.

In the same period, Henry VIII wrestled power from the monasteries in England while Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the Vatican in Germany. Michelangelo experienced personal as well as political turmoil, including the rise and fall of the Republic in Florence.

Rome was sacked in 1527 and 45,000 Roman men, women, and children vanished, either fleeing as refugees or killed. The Sistine Chapel only just escaped the mass looting and destruction. Meanwhile, Michelangelo was overseeing the fortifications of Florence as that city prepared for attack.

Ideal head of a Woman, c.1525 – 8.
28.7 x 23.5cm. © British Museum

In the film made for the BBC, British Museum director Neil McGregor gives a traditional religious account of Michelangelo’s creativity, counterposing the “spiritual” to the “physical”. In this interpretation the artist becomes mystically turned to the next world as he approaches his maker.

But another view is possible. If we substitute “mental” or “conceptual” for the word “spiritual”, we can see Michelangelo wrestling with and developing an understanding of how human beings are transformed through a practice of actively changing themselves. The conflicts within religious philosophy in the 16th century were the working through of complex social changes within thinkers and creators like Michelangelo and his circle.

With the sack of Rome, the Pope was left almost powerless, “The whole social structure on which the Humanist art of High Renaissance Rome was based was swept away. Instead of a sense of security men felt the general disturbance of events, which seemed to threaten the existence of the Catholic Church and, with it, of the whole of Italian society,” as Anthony Blunt wrote in his book Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1600.

The journey from an early humanism to a late mysticism is revealed in Michelangelo’s writings and poetry. There is a nakedly human quality, close in intensity to the verses of another mystic, St John of the Cross, who also struggled against the confines of the religious dogmas of his time. The evolution of his last drawings of the Crucifixion, made for his friend, the poet, Vittoria Colonna is more poignant and troubling still. These heavily-worked blurred images communicate directly, free of the barriers of the word and language. The Christian image loses its specific context and becomes one of the tenderness and close feeling of one human being for another as well as unbearable suffering.

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John, c.1555-64.
41.2 x 27.9cm. © British Museum

Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master is at the British Museum until June 25. There is a full programme of talks, films, documentaries, includes free lunchtime lectures. Admission is £10. Concessions available. Open daily with late evenings on Thursdays and Fridays. Telephone: 020 7323 8181.

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