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Review: “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”

Written by
Howard Halle

Genius is one of those terms that tends to get tossed around a lot. It’s appended, after all, to a grant awarded to dozens of people each year—which, when you think bout it, dilutes the singular nature of the word’s meaning. Consequently, there’s always a bit of cognitive dissonance when encountering the real deal: Absent a measurable baseline, it’s hard to wrap your head around true genius. It certainly was for me while viewing “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the show or, of course, Michelangelo (1475–1464), whose greatest works can’t be experienced without a trip to Rome or Florence. Yet the power of towering achievements like his David remain coiled within the principle offerings here: the 133 drawings by the the artist’s hand. These include figure studies, architectural renderings and portraits done in red or black crayon. There are also a few small sculptures by the master, along with his very first painting. And there are contributions by some of his contemporaries, most noticeably, an entire section devoted to Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494) whose workshop provided the training ground for the young Michelangelo. These additions are meant to provide historical context for an artist who transcends history, and while it’s tempting to dismiss them as filler, they do provide interest—if for no other reason than showing just far Michelangelo’s abilities outstripped those of his peers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony, created between 1487 and 1488. Limned in oil and tempera on a small wooden panel, it is a gnarly bit of medieval business worthy of Hieronymus Bosch in both style and substance. But its depiction of demons clawing at the eponymous subject as they float high above a rocky landscape anticipates the dramatic, aerial ballet of the Sistine Ceiling.

As one of the exhibition wall texts point out, Michelangelo was above all a sculptor. He approached the draftsman’s sheet as he would a block of marble. In many of his drawings, areas of shade are rendered in strokes that resemble chisel marks. A notable case is his Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi from 1532, one of a group of likenesses portraying young nobles who were objects of Michelangelo’s infatuation. Smooth as the finest carrara, his face seems hewn from rock. Yet his sidelong glance, and the seeming presence a slight quiver animating his mouth, betrays a sense of homoerotic desire which surely reflects the artist’s own.

This was the salient characteristic of Michelangelo’s art: He wrapped fire with ice, imbuing adamantine surfaces with the sensation that vast oceans of feeling roiled underneath—a reservoir that would erupt through the twisting figurative forms and compositional grandeur that were the hallmarks of his oeuvre. The psychological dynamism of Michelangelo’s work was taken for religious fervor at the time (at least by the pontiffs who underwrote it) but it was very modern in nature and its effects would ripple through subsequent centuries until it found its apotheosis in 20th-century Expressionism.

Michelangelo’s art, in other words, couldn’t have been any more different from the enigmatic sublime of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or the classical equipoise of Raphael’s The School Of Athens (a sort of who’s who of the Renaissance, which features a brooding Michelangelo in the foreground). Thus, the overlap of his career with theirs represented the fault line dividing past from future.

Like any show of drawings, this one is dimly lit to protect the work against fading. That, plus the small scale of the pieces, requires close observation—a necessity that conflicts with huge crowds you can expect to be jostling for a look. Don’t be deterred: While your time with each Michelangelo may be limited, it will definitely be worth it, if only to experience genius in its purest form.

“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” is on view at The Met’s Gallery 899 through February 12, 2018.

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