By Andrew Dugan
What was Michelangelo Buonarroti, a man who died 458 years ago, doing in the limelight? Granted, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was always busy, but these crowds were unlike anything I had ever seen before. For this limited time engagement of Michelangelo doodles, the place was stuffed to the brim, and the people were still coming in droves until the intercom signaled that “the museum will be closing in fifteen minutes.”
Known for his work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the David and St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo remains an icon of Renaissance art — but of Renaissance art, only. Does Michelangelo still have anything to add to the modern understanding of art? In a society with nuanced artistic voices illuminating the harsh realities of bigoted ideals, could this producer of grand, religious frescos and classical statues have anything to add to the current artistic climate?
The subject of the exhibition is Michelangelo as the draftsman: how his drawings act as blueprints to some of his most important masterpieces. Upon first glance, these sketches aren’t much to look at (certainly not as impressive as the Sistine Chapel), but nonetheless they were something of interest. The proof was in the crowd.
For me, there was one drawing that clarified the whole concept. The Libyan Sibyl is one of the Four Sibyls who adorns the border of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Sibyls were ancient women who spoke the words of the oracle. On the finished ceiling, the woman is confident and bold, marked with a luscious orange dress that unravels around her as she glances to her side, optimistic for the coming of Christ.
On display though, there was only a mere sketch of the rough physicality this fresco commanded, boxed on a black pedestal with low light shining above. Yet, in the intimate space of Michelangelo’s sketch, I could see more clearly his process.
Behind the creation of an iconic piece is a mess of creative attempts. What can be seen in Studies for the Libyan Sibyl is a man posing for Michelangelo as well as rough sketches of the delicate face and twisted nature of the sibyl’s body. These rough marks on the paper help us to see what exactly Michelangelo was trying to capture: the optimistic confidence in this oracle’s movement. Her expression of humanness is captured perfectly in the subtle assuredness in her smile, the tension in her arms as she lifts a book of prophecy. These physical features captured the anticipation and comfort in what the Libyan Sibyl has witnessed for the future.
Something irrefutably human is found in these rough sketches.
Often in masterpieces such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the human quality can be forgotten as the opulent colors and epic scenes swallow us up. The name has such a reputation that it can alienate us from the humanity that Michelangelo was trying to communicate.
These sketches show the master on an amateur’s stage. How even this God of Art goes through ideas and drafts in the struggle to capture human quality. Moreover, in a way, it is this pertinent human quality that solidifies the Sistine Chapel and the David as masterpieces.
While we are lucky enough to exist in a society brimming with artists, there are still issues: we are losing respect for this intrinsic human quality. There is still a need to capture it in order to make a piece arguably great.
Today, there are art schools costing tens of thousands of dollars based on the promise of transforming students into creative geniuses. People are constantly striving to exhibit the most nuanced techniques in the industry. There is a culture around becoming a “great” solely for the sake of achieving immortality like Michelangelo.
These attempts to be perfect get in the way of tapping into the humanity that makes art great. In these sketches, Michelangelo wrestles with the human. How does it move? How does it express not only its emotion but its passions and fears? In the minute of revelation, how does the human twist and turn?
With going forward in the world of literature, film, visual arts or music, the human quality should never suffer. It is this human quality that makes a piece so wildly attractive, allowing it to live long after the artist has passed. Almost 458 years after, in fact.
The Michelangelo exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on exhibit until February 12. Goes without saying, it is more than worth the trip.
Graphic by Caroline Polich