While individual galleries throughout this fine exhibition at The Met lie hushed in low-light to preserve these truly masterful drawings—their nuanced hatchings, their delicate shadings, their refined, ephemeral colorings—the pièce de résistance of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer will stun the visitor: The Sistine chapel’s ceiling frescos projected on an upside down screen. The flawless, backlit surfaces convey most effectively the colossal composition, and reproduce with accuracy the gaudiness of the original. This technological marvel might be perceived as preposterous by the more discerning modern visitor, but is likely to have been applauded by Michelangelo and the public of the Renaissance.
Apart from the reduction in size, the effect is in keeping with the intentions of Michelangelo and his style. The paintings themselves have little shadowing, but rather a leveling, bright midday light—chiaroscuro will have to wait for Caravaggio—and resort to a blunt primary color palette: blue, yellow, red, a lot of green, a little mauve. The composition contrasts fake architectural elements, in sober grisaille, with bunches of people. Massive bodies crowd the space, each bulging muscle depicted equally, without any hierarchy of size or signification. The head is not more important than the thigh muscle or the chest, possibly less important. The organization of the bodies creates an impression of animation, a strong wind blowing through in The Creation of Adam. But mostly the movement agitating the work comes from actions. Everyone is doing something: creating man, taking an apple from a snake, holding up a book for a saint to read. Even in the act of looking at God, the whole body—every limb and muscle—is engaged in that action. Each bodily perspective is represented, including a buttocks pointed to the viewer with singular frequency. The overall experience is not unlike looking at a jar full of worms: crawling life reduced to its physicality, to its phenomenology. De Kooning’s paintings come to mind: what you see is what you get. The world is what is perceived, without any other dimension, whether the spiritual, or the ethereal, or mystery.
This quest for physical perfection inspired a 20th Century cultural movement which also celebrated body over spirit, action over words: fascism. Hitler personally admired Michelangelo, who was an inspiration for Nazi sculptors such as Arno Breker. The cult of the heroic male body celebrated power and athletics as readiness for war. It revered competition, violence, death. The lack of individual representation championed the submergence in collectivity, as fascism appealed across social, religious, economic constituencies. The martial male body became a symbol of the state.
Michelangelo did not represent the heroic body in order to support a system. On the contrary, he opposed the totalitarianism of the Church as it had ruled in the Middle Ages. With other artists of the Renaissance, he rejected the iconology of Christianity. The spiritual relationship between spaces—earth, heaven, church—had been more important than real perspective. Symbolism had taken precedence over realism. With the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the Antique culture promoted a revolution in aesthetics, printed books spread knowledge, rationalism led to science.
For Michelangelo, humans are neither sinners, nor are they saints denying their own flesh. Even Jesus loses his beard and becomes a man with muscles and tendons. He looks like any of Michelangelo’s men, and vice versa. The artist celebrates life on earth versus heaven. We might find it surprising that the Church would employ Michelangelo, but he was considered the Master, Il Divino. He was a celebrity, with his own recognizable brand. He died famous and very rich—the first modern artist. It can be wondered whether he tackled the Sistine Chapel with a touch of irony. The Chapel showcases a whole flurry of handsome young men, all naked, who have nothing to do with religion whatsoever, amidst sarabands of phallic acorns joyfully strewn around.
Some medical scientists detect anatomical representations in the design of the Sistine Chapel. According to them, God creating Adam is a perfect representation of a cross-section of the brain and other compositional elements represent other parts of the body, such as kidneys in The Separation of Land and Water.
Again, Michelangelo stresses the organic over the spiritual. The creation of man is represented by a thinking brain; the kidneys separate matter from liquid, as in the Genesis. It is well documented that Michelangelo conducted dissections throughout his life to perfect his knowledge of musculature, the skeleton and organs. The paintings of the Sistine Chapel were met with disapproval in some religious circles, but not just because of the nudity or materialism. The Last Judgment raised the most protest, in particular from the Pope, because the church plays no role in mediating between God and humans in Michelangelo’s depiction of the myth.
It is ironic that Michelangelo, in his fight against ecclesiastical dogmatism, prepared the way for a different kind of totalitarian imagery, one based on the supremacy of the perfect physique. But the greatest irony of all is that the ideal type of body he represented is more accessible now through exercise machines and artificial nutrition. The latest resuscitation of the ideal physique, our modern obsession with bodybuilding and physical health, results from our cult of the self, in contrast to Michelangelo’s celebration of flesh over spirit, life over afterlife.
The Renaissance body was idealized, and the ideal was male. As many artists of his time, Michelangelo drew women’s bodies like men, with bundles of muscles. Their strange breasts resemble goatskins attached to male torsos, as if they had no other use or attraction than as lactating vessels. Artists had access to women models, though they were not as readily available as men. As the Master did not like to spend money, it is likely he asked workers–particularly muscular types, servants or apprentices–to pose for him at no extra cost.
But it’s not quite all muscle. In the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes, a tension rises between the potential power of the massive bodies and the torpor of the poses. Their sexuality and ultimate vulnerability comes across in the grace of the twisted bodies. The Rape of Ganymede, a drawing offered to one of his patrons, expresses even more eroticism than the heroic, vacuous bodies. The head is drawn in such a position that it is ambiguous whether it belongs to the human or to the god masquerading as an eagle. Raptor and raped are confused, as the male body yields its beauty both to the viewer and to the bird’s sadistic claws.
When he was not drawing bodies, the master produced “Divine Heads,” as his contemporary biographer Vasari called them. Michelangelo is said to not have drawn from models unless he considered them to have perfect beauty. The expression of Cleopatra and of the twisted male head in exotic headdress [see below] is somewhat intense or tragic, without any visual reference to the cause of the emotion. That combination of beauty and rarefied emotion has endured up to the present day, and particularly in the 19th century: think Pre-Raphaelite. In other works, the emotions emanating from the beauty are tender, compassionate, particularly when it comes to mothers or saints that are dressed, such as the Madonna in La Pietà. That sentimental aspect of Michelangelo’s art has influenced mawkish religious art through to the modern day. Even fascistic cultures celebrated women as mothers with sentimentality; Mothers’ Day, it must be remembered, is a Nazi invention.
While fascist movements rose from a desire for supremacy of a racial type, this is not what Michelangelo was after. He did not promote war or a totalitarian regime. But stripping the representation of humans of spirituality, and preferring emotional abstraction over the psychology of the individual opened the door to a long tradition of detestable art.
Whether one buys into Michelangelo art or not, the Met’s exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see the master’s works, drawn from an impressive range of collections. A lot of thought has been given to presenting the work, with each gallery allowing individual pieces to throw light on each other. One gallery illustrates the introduction of the young artist to sculpture. An exquisite Hellenistic bronze statuette,Youth Dancing, might have belonged to Lorenzo de Medici’s private Garden of sculptures to which Michelangelo had access, as the Medici were his patrons. A charming work, an Orpheus or Apollo by Bertoldo da Giovanni, is also on show, since this sculptor taught the young Michelangelo. Both works inform Michelangelo’s conception of a Cupid and of his Young Archer, exhibited in near proximity. Incidentally, the Cupid was sold to a Roman cardinal as an antique sculpture. When the buyer discovered it was only a Michelangelo, he asked for his money back. And got it.
The majority of the pieces in the exhibition are drawings. Many of them, mere scraps of paper, were meant as studies, compositional sketches, rather than as works of art per se. Michelangelo often used one side of a sheet for a first draft and the other side for the final drawing. Both versions of the Head of Cleopatra are ingeniously displayed in the show. Other pieces provide direct evidence of his teachings, or of his collaborations. Michelangelo would draw a motif, eyes for example, which his students tried to reproduce more or less successfully on the same piece of paper. His mastery is extraordinary. Typically, his collaborations included providing drawings to painters who created oil paintings from Michelangelo’s compositions, the exact financial and property arrangement unstated. Michelangelo is said to have been a difficult man, irascible and conceited, but he had many long friendships with his collaborators, such as the Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo. On display is moving evidence of their collaboration, a piece of paper with two drawings by Michelangelo next to verses in Sebastiano’s handwriting.
When Michelangelo worked with ink, or produced quick sketches, such as the preparatory drawing for St Lawrence before The Emperor, his hand showed more spontaneity. The characters come to life, real life. On another scrap, he detailed the anatomy of a heroic leg, then rotated the paper to write a madrigal: “gli sguardi che mi strazii” (the glances with which you torment me.) The preservation, so fortunate, of this volatile format, and the thoughtful exhibition of artifacts such as sonnets, letters, collaborative works, give a unique insight into the Italian Cinquecento. This brand new world of discoveries and rediscoveries, of rule breaking, of connections and communications and cross pollination comes alive, as do Michelangelo’s patrons, his collaborators, and the master himself. It is as if we are stealing a look through the window of his workshop to glimpse at his work in situ, in actual process, and with it we yet hear snatches of conversations with friends and witness the infatuations he bore for some of his young male friends.
The Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, for whom Michelangelo had a long-lasting passion, stands out in the exhibition. In this portrait, the only one representing an individual, a young man looks at the viewer, looks at the painter, establishing an emotional connection. His face, beautiful but far from perfect, expresses sadness and doubt, possibly a slight hostility. This ambiguity brings us in, prompting us to guess what emotions that expression might convey, and what the artist might have felt in return. We are finally allowed to use our imagination instead of being bludgeoned with phenomenological representations of the world. What a respite from the triumphant, soulless bodies of the Sistine Chapel’s frescos this delicate portrait offers.
Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.