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Michelangelo, the Man and the Myth


Michelangelo, the Man and the Myth might be more plainly called “Michelangelo Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti.”  Fully half the checklist items are hagiographic materials of greater or lesser interest, which better portray the artist’s public perception and the lending institution’s holdings than the artist himself.  The autograph materials, just three manuscripts and eleven drawings, are said to double the number of items by Michelangelo (1475-1564) in the United States: the Metropolitan Museum, by way of comparison, has only a single drawing. A New Yorker or any other American—in fact, anyone but a Florentine or a Roman—might spend a lifetime with Michelangelo on his mind but very seldom actually see a thing by the artist’s hand.  These few works will linger here until the first week of January; the exhibition will not travel elsewhere.

Michelangelo, "Study for Head of Leda." Photo courtesy SUArt Galleries

Two of the manuscripts are Michelangelo’s poems, which enjoyed a considerable reputation in his lifetime, copied in his own hand and presented to friends. His script is as suggestive as figurative drawing; the less self-conscious, the more so. The most telling of the manuscripts is a “placard” in a large, bold hand, addressed to drop-in laborers who appeared uninvited at the Medici Tombs work-site. In a voice peculiarly censorious, and halting, the artist declares that no unrecognized man (however willing) will be paid for the day. Italian-speaker or no, anyone can cipher as much from the Latin roots, and see that the script starts sharp, brusque and incisive, then loosens midway, becoming more rounded, eloquent, even indulgent, and cinches up once more as it recalls its mission, and concludes. 

The selection of drawings makes a relatively oblique reference to sculpture and positively embraces architecture. Half the drawings are architectural, and after the last of the selected figurative drawings, the next thirty years of work are devoted to architecture, which was in fact the pattern of Michelangelo’s career. Everything he had begun as a sculptor was absorbed into architecture.

The most prepossessing image in the exhibition is in fact not figurative, but quite abstract. The sketch plan of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini summons a world of Michelangelo’s late thoughts; it antedates his death, at ninety, by only four years.   

The plan is a Greek cross, the sheet nearly square and the drawing dark, chromatic and mandala-like. It is an idea, but like all of Michelangelo’s work, it is as much a living thing as it is an idea. Its abstract conception, thrown outward in rays from the central altar, is powerfully evident, but one is also aware of a correspondent muscular warmth, extending in depth, already carving the walls of the ancillary chapels in elevation, swirling around the galleries and blackening the interior walls. Michelangelo’s work, all of it, is uncanny. Even a casual viewer senses a vast, complex and unseen architecture behind the least of Michelangelo’s workaday studies. The neo-Platonism of his youth and his lifelong Catholic piety invested half the palpable esotericism of his projects; his person alone was sufficient to supply the rest.   

One of the figurative drawings is of far more interest than any of the others, the “Studies for the Head of Leda.”The sheet is not very big; just about legal-size, a single head in profile and below it a subsequent profile eye alone, fully closed. Everyone knows the image already, from reproduction, but it is only face-to-face that we see that she is so real. 

Michelangelo’s reputation has not prepared us for this.  All the drawing is extraordinarily fine, sure, and chaste, but the modeling of the articulated face from the orbits of the eyes to the tip of the chin is almost unbearably expressive, and fleshly. This Leda is not an idea. Michelangelo supposedly dealt only in concepts and dismissed personal likeness from his work. Not so. One has, rather, to wonder if something like the inward, private and tender interior life of this young woman also imbued the far-off personages of the Sistine Ceiling and the Last Judgment. We may yet come to recognize that even the most elevated of Michelangelo’s abstract personifications is realized in the image of someone.       

Here, within arms’ reach of these original works, we experience an intangible presence that could hardly be surmised through even the most devoted study of reproductions: Michelangelo’s own immanent physical warmth.  Man and Myth directs our attention toward the historical persona of this most irretrievably difficult of artists, but, perhaps only inadvertently, it has also revealed the essential carnality of Michelangelo’s mind.


Brandt Junceau


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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