S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

Michaelangelo and Fuseli

The Michaelangelo drawings exhibit at the British Museum opened some Thursdays ago, during my mother's short visit here, so we joined the crowds thronging the panels to see it. The goal of the exhibit - to show a large selection of Michaelangelo's drawings in intimate circumstances - was entirely successful. I looked at nearly every drawing from inches away, the ebb and flow of ink-lines shown clearly. Drawings in particular show off the power of a line to evoke form. And Michaelangelo could draw. Bodies are all muscle for him, arranged to show off different sets, arrange to show off muscles which don't even exist, but arranged in endless variety on the page.

Most of the drawings were sketches for eventual rendering in stone or fresco. Two large sections of the show focused on the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgement. An accompanying computer display showed how the parts and pieces shown in each drawing fit into the finished whole: a sketched hand morphs into the fresco'd version; the camera pulls away to show how the hand fits into a body, the body into a vignette, then rotates the vignette to fit it into the entire wall. The elegant contextualizations helped make sense of the scattered body fragments.

The exhibit was beautifully-designed, which is to say, strong on aesthetics and didactic elements. It began with other artists' drawings and sculptures of Michaelangelo, and embellished the tale of his life with letters from his own pen, and other letters written to him. We deciphered large portions of his letters, as we acclimatized slowly to the scrawl of his writing. Here and there on the walls, life-sized photos of finished places were blown up in proportion. The looming entrance to the Medici library gave a sense of goal to the early sketches considering what it should look like. A continuous timeline of his life ran around the outside of the room, painted on waist-high; the downside was that those of us looking at the objects sometimes had to move out of the way of people looking at the timeline.

Being in each others' way was one of the primary senses of the exhibit. Each drawing was large enough for two people to stand in front of and really look at, but those listed on the audio guide regularly held a more unfeasible audience of six. The panels were too close together: to look at some of the drawings required being in the way of people looking at the panel behind. With 90+ drawings, and several dozen additional materials, this was an exhibit that could easily have filled a space twice the size of the room it was primarily allotted. We spent three hours there and even then, I was rushing towards the end.

With a bit of patience along the way, I had no problem physically negotiating to see each drawing up close, but then again, I suspect I felt a greater sense of comfort and entitlement to look at the drawing from close-up than many others did. A pair of wistful older ladies wandered by at one point, intimidated by the crowds between them and the objects of the exhibit. "We won't remember any of this very well, will we," said one to the other.

But I certainly will, especially the unexpected marvels - a waxwork, fist-sized, has survived from Michaelangelo's hand, riding out the centuries in temperate spaces; how unexpected it was to encounter a sheep after pages upon pages of only seeing the human form; his final poems, turning from art to God. Go see the exhibit, but if you possibly can, go in a time of quiet.

A day or two later, we went to the Gothic Nightmares exhibit at the Tate. Henry Fuseli's work was highlighted, but there were many works by William Blake and other romantic artists, contextualized with literary excerpts which had inspired them. The Romantics were enamored of Renaissance painting and many of them modeled their work after that spirit, copying Michaelangelo's Sistine figures as exercises, for example. Since I only had time to work my way through the first three rooms of the Gothic Nightmares exhibit - the rooms which concentrated most on the male figure - I saw the show primarily with respect to the other.

Organizatinally, the Tate exhibit is the more effective one. There is space to look at the works. Panels are not too close together - the floor space is expansive. Each room is color-coded, the walls painted in richly-saturated, often lurid hues; the progression between organizational ideas is unambiguous. Single drawings or paintings might be briefly overcrowded, but there was always room to look.

Fuseli's drawings of the nude male are blockier than Michaelangelo's. Each uses the same method of evoking form - lots of small curved strokes of pen or pencil, each defining a muscle. Fuseli's more squared figures are stoney in their makeup, salt of the earth in their strength. Michaelangelo's weren't any more real, super-muscled forms, deities sculpted of flesh. Fuseli's images have plot. They are illustrative, part of a sequence of happenings whether based on a poem or Fuseli's own heroic imaginings. Michaelangelo's are more self-contained portraiture.

In the end, I had no time for faeries or for the apocalypse. I have until May first to see the rest of the show. Also, I was particularly charmed to see that an accompanying reader has been published as part of the show's tie-in materials.

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