Recently, in two shows, on two continents, spotlighting two of history‘s greatest painters, sculptors, and draftsmen, I saw the biggest public display of drawings ever assembled by one, and the biggest painting ever created by the other.
The drawings (133 of them) are by the Italian High Renaissance titan, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). The mural-size painting (more than 30 by 50 feet) is by the 20th-century Spanish master, Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973).
“Parade” (1917), Picasso’s painted stage curtain for a Sergei Diaghilev ballet of the same name, is more than twice the size of the colossal “Guernica” (1937), his landmark anti-war statement of unmitigated suffering.
What could be bigger than tragedy? you might ask. The circus! The painting, with its winged woman in white balancing (sort of) on the back of a winged white horse, is “huger than the whole rest of the world.” as the awestruck little girl I overheard at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome proclaimed to her mom.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the minuscule was devouring the behemoth. Fingernail-scale examples of Davids wrestling Goliaths, Samsons wrestling lions, and other ink and chalk heroes wrestling other foes were busy stealing the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition, which includes more than 200 works, is brilliantly curated by Dr. Carmen C. Bambach. It is called Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (Nov. 13, 2017-Feb. 12, 2018), an apt title because Michelangelo comes as close to any artist, ever, to celebrating the sacred, whether he’s portraying an angel’s wings or a vulture’s.
Sure, there are near-life-size works, but for me the grandest, most impressive achievements in this exhibition are often no bigger than a thumb, or even a thumbnail.
In his widely reproduced “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” (c.1510-11), from heads to fingers to big toes, there’s enough divinity to fill the Vatican. But the drawing is not about religion. On the Sistine Ceiling, the mythical Libyan Sibyl is massive, brightly colored, elaborately draped, and holding a great big book. And she’s a major part of a gigantic, gridded masterpiece loaded with figures. At the Met, subdued to a single color, it’s just her. Well, not even. Just details of her.
But that’s plenty. Here, we’re given access to the drawing process itself — the dance of a “divine draftsman” angling in close, leaning back, and circling around a pose as he blocks out his seemingly “uncomposed” composition.
A light touch here; heavy crosshatching there — human anatomy in hints and details. A floating hand fingering an ear; a torqued torso colliding with a face; a face dreaming about a torso dreaming about coiffured hair; a woman who looks like a man (or is it a man who looks like a woman?) — this female prophet, whose model was male.
There are extra lines; changes of mind; separations; morphings; the contours of a hip turning into an ankle; a darkly defined left arm, rib cage, and back echoing the movement of the more lightly toned forms below; three stuttering big toes, and near the center of it all, a serene bodybuilder performing ballet. For, what is a body without its dance? We can identify anatomical parts. But identification is where representational art begins, not ends.
In “Archers Shooting at a Herm” (1530-33) we identify a dozen or so youths. But where are their bows? Or their arrows and clothes, for that matter? (Actually, there are a few arrows.) The drawing’s abstraction makes the curious absence of weapons beside the point. What heart-racing joy it is to be immersed in the archers’ theatrics, the group functioning as a kind of single, singular, heteromorphic creature, kneeling and sprinting and flying, its many cocked and outstretched arms engaged in synchronized flapping.
Meanwhile, in the lower right-hand corner, perhaps lullabied by a chorus of swishing arrows, an angel sleeps. Is this Cupid, with his stage prop of a bow resting uselessly across his lap, dreaming what’s going on above?
The Cupid is a comma, not a full stop. The passage runs on — and flies — to the herm, which is a square column carved with the likeness of Hermes, used as a border marker in ancient times. Here, the archers are apparently using it for target practice. Arrows against stone? The herm has always struck me as a provocative non sequitur. Is it a holdover from an earlier sketch, a new thought for a subsequent one, part of a corresponding page now missing, or simply the kind of random thought that often worms its charming, doodly, sometimes sideways way onto an image where it doesn’t belong, yet somehow gets into the title? Or maybe it was meant as a whimsical stand-in for an arrow-ridden Saint Sebastian, serving to protect, superhero style, whomever or whatever is offstage.
There is no place for whimsy in Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John” (1555-1564 ). Here, Jesus is flanked by staggering, Guernica-like sadness. What could possibly be more heartbreaking than a mother helplessly standing beneath her child as he slowly suffers an agonizing death? Mary is so traumatized she’s hardly recognizable; actually, but for the title, I may not have known she was there, dissolving like a teardrop. And Jesus and John: what a tour-de-force pairing. So much is said with so little, Jesus in physical and spiritual pain; John emotionally devastated. The difference between them is both subtle and stunning.
Jesus: his head is drooping, arms splayed, hands nailed to boards that are as angled as the letter V. Also angled is the rulered stem of the T-shaped cross that backs the Man of Sorrows. Multiplied by pentimenti, his arms seem to flutter like a broken bird. A spot of color on Christ’s foot connects the men — a metaphor for John’s outcry, and a final glimmer of life hanging from the cross.
I’ve previously seen this image only in books. Even in reproduction, there’s magic. Viewing the original could convert an atheist. Or suck every trace of joy out of life. Unless, that is, you love drawing, in which case a few ghostly marks and smudges can be transformed into rapture. Devastation and joy at once — there’s no limit to art’s magnitude.
Like the figures, the paper out of which they are coaxed looks intangible. Pure vapor. Did the artist sigh the trio into existence? After all, for Michelangelo, drawing feels as natural as breathing. Of course, I don’t really care to know how the people Michelangelo portrayed were born. There’s a want of wonder in life, and so, even if it’s hinted at, why not, like a child at a circus, simply lose ourselves in the miracle of a drawing that’s “huger than the whole rest of the world”?
Which, with a jolt, leads us back to Picasso’s colossal carnival curtain and the child’s declaration that it is “. . . huger than . . .” Though less hyperbolic in regard to “Parade” than it would be to most works of art, her appraisal gives free rein to her fantasy. Likewise, despite the generally naturalistic approach of Picasso’s visual language, as in the balletic “Archers Shooting at a Herm,” “Parade” is all theatrics.
If Michelangelo’s group of archers looks like a multi-limbed creature, in “Parade,” because of playful overlapping and the doubling of black-and white socks and slippers, Picasso’s awkwardly angled young man wearing a black-and-red diamond-patterned harlequin costume looks like he has four feet.
Circus is artifice and ambiguity. Accordingly, in “Parade,” the shuffle of illusion and reality abounds: the blue-shirted man sports a fake mustache; the fruit on the platter is fake, as are the awkwardly made tables with legs missing. The white horse sports fake wings, as does the footless acrobat in her white tutu. The woman in the tan bonnet, framed by what looks like a green canvas, is a painted portrait when we look only at her head and shoulders. She quits her canvas when we notice her leg, foot, and hand. The foal suckling beneath her mother becomes a symbol of the undercurrent of love and public intimacy amidst this closely knit cast of characters.
And then there’s the canvas itself, which totters between being a major painted statement and an intentionally awkward 50-foot sketch that, due to the coarse, porous material and the scrubbed or sponged-on paint, looks like a fresco when viewed close up.
Near the Palazzo Barberini, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, there was until January 21st a simultaneous exhibition, Picasso Between Cubism and Neo-Classicism: 1915-1925. Major paintings like “Three Dancers” (1925), “The Pipes of Pan” (1923), and “Two Women Running on the Beach” (1922) — capering like ballerinas — occupied the first floor of the museum. As the titles suggest, music and dance played a central role in many of these works.
Almost the entire second floor was devoted to the artist’s theatrically related drawings. A 20th-century Renaissance man, Picasso designed sets and Cubist costumes for a number of performances, designs that became as inextricable from their respective productions as Erik Satie’s music, Leonide Massine’s choreography, Jean Cocteau’s libretto, and, of course, Picasso’s art were to “Parade.“
With his Renaissance counterpart, the father of Cubism shared greatness and ambition, and a love for preparatory studies. Performers call these studies “rehearsals.” Visual artists call them sketches. For many of us, they are often just as rewarding — sometimes even richer — than what they lead to.
Size, texture and many other qualities affect an artwork’s feel and magnitude, especially when those qualities are pronounced. Scale augments both the grandeur and intimacy of Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John,” and Picasso’s “Parade.” Viewed in books and online, they can fill pages and screens equally, although in reality, “Parade” is more than 80 times wider than “Christ on the Cross.” That’s one reason why, whenever possible, it’s important to see art in person..
Drawings and paintings have sizes. But there’s no limit to their magnitude.
Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.