2017-11-09 20:05:03
art review: Michelangelo Is the Divine Star of the Must-See Show of the Season

“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a monument to a monument. With more than 200 works, and a core group of 133 drawings by the beyond-famous artist — the largest number ever assembled — on loan from some 50 front-rank collections, it’s a curatorial coup. More important, it’s an art historical tour de force: a panoptic view of a titanic career as recorded in the most fragile of media — paper, chalk, and ink.

It’s a show with demands: It requires that you be fully present. Snapping it with smartphones won’t do. Drawing is more than a graphic experience; it’s a textural one, about the pressure of crayon and pen on a page; the subliminal fade and focus of lines; the weave and shadow-creating swells of surfaces. Barely seeable, never mind photographable, these effects are, one way or another, the truest evidence of the artist’s hand.

And a final drumroll: The fame of Michelangelo Buonarroti may last long, but this Met-built monument to him, which opens on Monday, Nov. 13, will not. It’s a one-stop event with a non-extendable three-month run, which is the maximum exposure to light, even at dusk-level, that the drawings can safely stand. Once the show’s done, the likelihood of there being another on its scale within the lifetime of anyone reading these words is slim.

Giving a full account of anyone’s art means giving a sense of where it came from, and we get that here. Although Michelangelo would have been the last to tell us — he liked to present himself as a parthenogenetic wonder — he did have some art training. Born in 1475 into a line of minor Florentine nobility, he entered the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio as a pupil-apprentice at age 13. From that fastidious painter he may have learned the practice, uncommon at the time, of making preparatory drawings for work in more permanent mediums.

Yet Michelangelo’s self-starter claims may still stand up to scrutiny. According to dates assigned to drawings by him near the beginning of the show, he could have been sketching figures in frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio in local churches as early as 16. A small oil-and-tempera painting called “The Torment of Saint Anthony,” based on a print by Martin Schongauer, came at about the same time as his Ghirlandaio stint. And it’s impressive: the teenage artist not only skillfully edits Schongauer’s midair tangle of demons-and-saint, but sets it against an invented seascape.

By 1490-91, he seems to have come under the tutelage of Bertoldo di Giovanni. A significant older sculptor, Bertoldo was also curator of an antiquities collection that Lorenzo de’ Medici had amassed to enhance the social status of his family. For Michelangelo, this interlude was formative. It confirmed that sculpture was the medium he cared about most deeply; it exposed him to a Classical tradition that he would emulate and transform; and it initiated a lifelong Medici connection that would be a boon and a curse.

But questions of what came first arise here too, centered on a marble sculpture called the “Young Archer.” For many years, this figure of a nude youth had stood, barely noticed, in the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Met. Then in 1996, an art historian identified it as a Michelangelo. The call was hotly debated, but the attribution has stood. And the “circa 1496-97” date now attached to the work makes it altogether possible that Michelangelo carved the figure at age 21, making him the prodigy he claimed to be.

With this sculpture, he had found what would be his favorite subject, and the one that would make his name: the heroic male body. Approximately a decade after the “Young Archer” came the colossal “David,” and with that Michelangelo was a star, a Medici darling, and on his way to becoming the new kind of public celebrity he aimed to be: not just a highly skilled maker of things, but a multitasking, miracle-working aristocrat of creativity called a genius. If Michelangelo didn’t coin the term, he (with a reluctant nod to Leonardo da Vinci) coined the type.

Prestigious commissions, in painting, sculpture and architecture, piled up. In 1504, he was asked to do a fresco for the Council Chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of the Florentine government. Leonardo, more than 30 years his senior, and no friend, was assigned the opposite wall. The idea was that they both would paint a historic battle, Michelangelo’s being one in which a troop of 14th-century Florentine soldiers interrupted a swim in the Arno to take an enemy by surprise.

He turned the scene into a polyphonic chorale of pumped bodies: abs, pecs, lats, glutes, buns. We know the image well, though the fresco — thanks to the first of what would be endless Medici interventions — never got beyond the full-scale cartoon stage. Ink and chalk sketches on paper of the individual figures exist. So does a drawing of the whole composition, now so smudged it looks like a puff of smoke. The most vivid piece of evidence is a large 1540 oil painting here by Bastiano da Sangallo, who saw the finished cartoon before it was whitewashed out.

All of this material, now scattered among museums — the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Albertina in Vienna — has been brought together at the Met. This is how the exhibition, organized by Carmen C. Bambach, a curator in the museum’s department of drawings and prints, works. It ingeniously reconstructs Michelangelo projects by assembling related designs in dense, connect-the-dots clusters.

This is, of course, the only way to present architecturally scaled art, or long-vanished things. The show is as close as we can now get to seeing the massive sculptural tomb of Pope Julius II in its many aborted iterations; it was this “urgent” commission (years before Julius’s death) that pulled Michelangelo off the battle fresco. And a selection of plans — scribbled on paper scraps, spread across pasted-together sheets — for the facade of the Medici parish church of San Lorenzo adds up to a beguiling archive of thinking-in-progress. Rarely has architectural design felt more expressively personal, moody, painterly, calligraphic.

Part of Ms. Bambach’s goal, and one that she pursues in her labor-of-love catalog, is to revisit the original Renaissance concept of design — disegno — as a theoretical category, an aesthetic and ethical end in itself. A basic idea was that just as the physical world represented, in every shade and contour, divine labor so, on a human level, did (or could) art. Michelangelo benefited mightily from this elevation of the artist from workshop drone to deity (and brand). In his later megastar years, people actually referred to him as God. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a work of disegno in excelsis: the story of the Creation told through superhuman craft.

The exhibition’s long central gallery is given over to the ceiling, a project so complex that Michelangelo gave up organizing a production team and did most of the job himself. You can see him plugging away at it, on scaffolding just under the ceiling, in a self-caricature drawn in the margin of a handwritten sonnet. “I’ve already grown a goiter at this drudgery,” he grouses. “My brush, above me all the time, drips paint, turning my face into a perfect drop cloth.”

In the Sistine paintings — the male body — and nearly all the bodies are male — are muscle on top of muscle, Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1975. The Classical ideal — balance, just-rightness — has been pumped out of existence. Mannerist too-muchness — the 21st century knows a lot about this — rules. Neither the ceiling, nor the later, nightmarish “Last Judgment,” is art you’re invited to love. It aims to overpower you, make you feel small, crushed by cosmic history. Some viewers find the experience a thrill. I’ve always found it off-putting.

It’s in drawings that I start to feel close to this art and its maker. One chalk-sketched titan has an oddly lumpy, imperfect, maybe-not-young body; and he’s sleeping. Clearly, he’s a studio assistant who’s been roped into posing at the end of a day. And while the mood of the “Last Judgment” fresco is full-orchestra cataclysmic, ink sketches for it can be light, almost tender. In one, the resurrected dead float in space, speck-like and weightless, like birds lifting off from a foggy lake.

And then there are drawings generated by tenderness itself. This is true of a gallery devoted to fanciful “divine heads,” including one of a doleful Cleopatra, that the middle-aged artist made as gifts for young male aristocrats — Gherardo Perini, Andrea Quaratesi, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri — on whom he had developed crushes. His black chalk portrait of Quaratesi, who was 37 years his junior, as a somber dreamboat with plush lips and faraway eyes is here and it’s an eye-stopper. So are several discretely erotic mythological drawings he gave as Valentines to Cavalieri who, whatever the sexual nature of their bond, became a lifelong friend. He was at the artist’s bedside when he died at 88 in Rome in 1564.

And in that city, where Michelangelo spent the last 30 years of his life, he met the poet and intellectual Vittoria Colonna. Their friendship came late (he was 61), lasted until Colonna’s death in 1547, and seems to have seriously changed him. It encouraged his move in a contemplative direction and brought a new soft grace to his work. Michelangelo can be, often is, a visually aggressive artist. But he isn’t that — quite the opposite — in the meltingly sinuous red-and-black chalk “Dead Christ Held by His Mother” from the late 1530s, or in the great black chalk “Pietà” from around 1546 that he dedicated to Colonna, and gave to her.

But in other essential ways he didn’t change. In late career, he was still a workaholic, overbooking on commissions, pacifying popes, writing poetry, and cooking up designs for other artists (Sebastiano del Piombo, Daniele da Volterra) to turn into paintings. Hand and mind were never still. They never had been. Nearly every drawing in the Met show is a work sheet. The artist makes a sketch, rotates it to make a second, turns it over and adds yet another. Images on any given sheet might include bodybuilders, saints, architectural elevations, a pornographic doodle, a man screaming, a verse from Petrarch, a beloved face. To a genius, monuments are made of any and all of these.