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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.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 10th, 2006 10:58 am (UTC)
As much as big exhibits are valuable for those of us who can't venture to every small museum (or private collection!) to see the works in question, their worth is frequently mitigated, I find, by the sheer numbers of people that they attract. I get frustrated when I can't see what I'm there to see without waiting in a queue for fifteen minutes just to get in front of it and then feeling rushed through. Anything with "Michelangelo" or "Picasso" or "Impressionist" on the label is going to end up being packed...a shame, really, for people who go to *look* rather than going to tell their friends that they've gone.

Still, it sounds like you enjoyed both and I'm glad that they were good experiences for you! I'm always sorry, in that regard, that London is as far (and as pricy to get to) as it is, because there's definitely more in the way of art that I'd like to see and can't.
Apr. 10th, 2006 11:06 am (UTC)
The crowds were not entirely their own fault since both shows were ticketed. If the museum wanted to opt for a more pleasant experience for the attendees, it could reduce the number of ticket shows per time interval. It's an awkward balance financially for a show that in demand - between overcrowding and actually pleasant experience.

Much as I like niftily-made buttons, I can see why London's current (and future) art offerings might be more tempting (and are more numerous) than Button World.
Apr. 10th, 2006 11:31 am (UTC)
The cost of mounting the big exhibits definitely makes it more difficult to limit numbers for tickets sold but, at the same time, it also makes it more problematic for viewers when museums don't limit the sales of tickets - and I have yet to see them do so.
Apr. 10th, 2006 11:07 am (UTC)
Also, on the subject of the Michaelangelo show, we did go on opening day, so it's possible - but I suspect not likely - that they've changed the entry rate since.
Apr. 10th, 2006 01:56 pm (UTC)
I would love to see both of those shows....wooooow.
Apr. 10th, 2006 04:30 pm (UTC)
was it hard for you to get tickets? I'm starting to think that I shouldn't go to Bristol at all and save wed, sat, sun, and monday for Stonehenge, Hampton Court palace, and London stuff.
Apr. 10th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC)
No, for both of them we bought our tickets the day we visited the show. You can book tickets in advance for both if you're interested and at all worried about lack of them. There's a Bellini and the East show which opens at the National Gallery before you arrive which you might be interested in too.
Apr. 10th, 2006 06:34 pm (UTC)
One of the recent big shows here (before the main museum closed for renovation) extended viewing hours into the evening, which seems to have helped. I remember seeing the first Tut exhibit at the de Young, as well as the first big China exhibit (the Jade suit, etc -- in the 70s after Nixon's visit) and the Book of Kells ... all were pretty awful in terms of not really being able to look at things properly.
Apr. 15th, 2006 10:54 am (UTC)
Michelangelo, real or fake?
I did http://www.zipser.nl/michelangelo1-short.html research on the Michelangelo Drawings exbhibition when it was in Haarlem. I found that the exhibition presented a distorted view, especially with respect to M.'s pen drawings. What do you think?
Best, Karl Zipser, Ph.D.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )