Superlatives fail when it comes to Michelangelo, of course. And so what can be said of an exhibition that attempts to take the measure of his endlessly creative life and actually pulls it off? Superlatives fail there as well.
The scope, scholarship, and sheer bravura of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which opens to the public on Monday, are astonishing any way you cut it. There are 128 of his drawings, with dozens more by contemporaries, as well as three of his sculptures; the list of works in the exhibition catalogue, including provenances and bibliographies, is laid out in small, single-spaced type that goes on for 15 large pages.
The technical logistics, not to mention the reams of insurance spreadsheets, that went into making it all happen must have been mind-bending, to say the least. The show will not travel, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to assert that an exhibition of this magnitude will never happen again.
And so a note of heartfelt thanks to Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, who spent eight years organizing the show — and who, through her prodigious research, added another feather to her cap by moving one of the drawings in the exhibition, “Sleeping Reclining Male Nude with Boy-Genius,” from the “attributed” to the “autograph” column (though the wall label still modestly retains the former categorization).
“Sleeping Reclining Male Nude,” which is done in black chalk and bears the handwriting of Michelangelo’s frequent collaborator, Sebastiano del Piombo, is a minor work, but I couldn’t detect a false note in the treatment of form or the handling of the medium. I mention this only because the differences between Michelangelo’s methods and those of his contemporaries becomes a subtext of sorts, perceptible through the strategic placement of Michelangelo’s works vis-à-vis corresponding ones by others. You don’t have to look at the wall label to know the difference.
In a room dedicated to one of Michelangelo’s greatest lost works, the “Battle of Cascina,” there is a well-known grisaille copy by Bastiano da Sangallo of the full-scale cartoon Michelangelo made for the fresco commission, which would have faced a similarly themed mural by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria. Both artists eventually abandoned the project, but their cartoons were hung in their intended spots at the Palazzo, which became a de facto drawing academy for the young artists who flocked to study them.
Within eye view of the Bastiano, on a stand in the middle of the floor, there is a small preparatory study that Michelangelo made for the fresco. Although this is an unfair comparison, because it matches apples to oranges (an oil painting on wood against a black chalk drawing over leadpoint on paper), the contrast between the two is revealing of Michelangelo’s concept of form, space, and the interaction of medium and surface.
Bastiano’s composition is stop-and-go, haltingly moving from one figure to the next, while the soldiers’ features are overly articulated, as if each were hemmed inside their own contours and divorced from the forms on either side. As a result, the massed bodies lack the sense of abstraction that Michelangelo brings to his study, one that compresses the soldiers’ volumetric forms onto the flatness of the picture plane.
Michelangelo’s sketch sacrifices detail for movement; where Bastiano depicted a hash of figures in contrived poses, Michelangelo has drawn the headlong rush of soldiers scrambling up an Arno riverbank as if it were a billow of smoke. The bodies emphatically twist and gesticulate, but they operate as a single, multi-limbed, Hydra-headed host, while the artist’s looping, squiggling chalk lines reside firmly on the paper’s surface.
If these drawings attest to the supremacy of Michelangelo’s hand and conceptual rigor over his highly accomplished peers, it might seem strange to say that, for me, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer has gone a long way to bringing him down to earth. That is not a disparagement, but an appreciation of curator Bambach’s thoroughness and scholarship, which counters the popular image (unfortunately reflected in the exhibition’s title) of Michelangelo the Demigod. Rather, he is presented within these galleries as a student, a thinker, a teacher, and a friend.
Michelangelo’s apprenticeship in the basics of drawing, painting, and sculpture wasn’t long but it was intensive. His devotion to the Florentine masters who preceded him, manifested in the careful copies he made of their work, particularly the Brancacci Chapel frescos of Masaccio, is almost touching. As if to drive home the point of his early mastery, the exhibition even features a return appearance of his first painting — a jewel-like riff on Martin Schongauer’s engraving, “Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons,” from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth — which was presented at the Met in the summer of 2009.
There are works here that I never imagined seeing in the United States, first among them the over-life-size “Cartoon with a Group of Soldiers for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter” from the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples. Bambach has also managed to reunite “The Fall of Phaeton” from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle with its two studies, from the British Museum and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. And she has mated the four David and Goliath sketches from the Morgan Library & Museum in New York with a sheet of studies on the same subject from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The Ashmolean sheet is fascinating in the way it reveals Michelangelo’s thought process, with one idea migrating to the next. Above two triangular configurations of David raising his sword to decapitate Goliath, there is a standing male nude with the same gesture, but identified on the wall label as “Christ in the Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple.” It is impossible to say which came first, of course, but the relationship between them — as well as, for that matter, the raised right arm of Christ in the “Last Judgment” — is indicative of the organic, intuitive sparks of image-making we detect as we move from drawing to drawing.
This sense of continuity salted with restlessness and experiment is the most memorable aspect of the show. In other words, the breadth and depth of the drawings on display enable us to see the artist working — trying out idea after idea, especially in the architectural designs, some of which are boldly abstract in a stunningly contemporary way. Sometimes the pursuit of a motif results in a drawing’s verso being even more fascinating than its world-famous recto, as in “Female Figure Seen in Bust-Length from the Front (Cleopatra)” from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, which has a sketchier but even more expressive version of a woman’s head on the back.
With such an abundance of work from Michelangelo’s hand, the exhibition really does begin to feel like the record of an actual life, of someone who can be known and understood. We see evidence of his relationship with his students in the fiendishly complex image of a dragon he drew, in ink, over their bland studies of heads — no doubt to intimidate, flabbergast, and challenge them. We see the busy professional who took on more commissions than he could handle and passed his designs onto lesser talents to paint. And we see, in a single room, the drawings he gave as gifts to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young aristocrat who became the love of his life, upon which he lavished the sensuality he could not express with his body.
And then there are the tremulous, open forms of the unsurpassable images he made of the dead Christ, the outward signs of his late-in-life spiritual communion with the poet Vittoria Colonna. Just as his great, roughly chiseled Pietàs of the same period feel inseparable from their marble blocks, these images meld into the chalk dust defining them, their translucency shifting between flesh and vapor, overwhelmed by sorrow and guilt.
There is so much more that’s worthy of discussion in this exhibition, both by Michelangelo or by way of context, such as the oil painting that Marcello Venusti made of the “Last Judgment” before its censorship in 1565. There are also some unnecessary flourishes, like the giant light box replicating the Sistine Ceiling above the gallery displaying studies for that epochal work. But in the scheme of things those issues barely register as quibbles. This is a show worthy of Michelangelo’s art, which is all you need to know.
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 12, 2018.