Michelangelo and His Influence: Drawings From Windsor Castle

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through June 22

By Geoffrey Bent

An intimate art form can offer the most revealing approach to the titans of art. A bagatelle by Beethoven, a sonnet by Shakespeare–these smaller genres display their creators’ characteristic themes and processes but without the heroic glare of the larger works. This exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings from a collection at Windsor Castle, ranging from finished projections of works he never completed to studies for works he did, in no way diminishes an artist who usually expressed himself in vaulting walls and towering marbles; if anything, the intimate scale increases the works’ impact. And no artist has influenced as many of his fellows for as long as Michelangelo has (in fact three-quarters of the works in this traveling show are copies of his designs by other renowned artists, including Raphael).

Michelangelo transformed the body into an infinitely expressive vehicle: under the Florentine’s hand, man did more than take center stage in the world of the Renaissance–he was power made visible. As the many anatomical studies from this collection reveal, Michelangelo had a thorough enough knowledge of what lurks beneath the skin to serve a physician well. His primary concern in these sketches is musculature; for no other artist is the epidermis such a transparent envelope. His knowledge of muscle placement, asserting itself beyond the obscuring influence of flesh, amplifies the real into the expressionistic, a tendency that’s more pronounced in a two-dimensional approach like drawing. In Michelangelo’s three-dimensional work, the shadows that define volume are furtive: they disappear or recede as one’s perspective shifts.

Michelangelo’s devotion to the human form goes beyond homoerotic promptings or the tricks of a canny artist: these drawings have the gravitational pull of an obsession. In his preliminary sketches for clothed figures, Michelangelo strips the subjects bare to see what’s really going on–even in renderings of the Virgin Mary. This approach is so reflexive that he occasionally misapplies it: when Florence commissioned a heroic fresco from Michelangelo to celebrate the Battle of Cascina, he produced a crowded cartoon of nude soldiers bathing. The fresco was never executed. And as might be expected in an artist so fixated on powerful musculature, the female nude is problematic. The Florentine’s depictions of women au naturel tend to make them look like stevedores with breasts (nipples in particular seemed to elude him: he always had them angling off like the small-caliber guns on battleships).

Michelangelo’s figures are never static: they twist and bend, reach and crouch, seemingly churning with motion. The Fall of Phaeton is no skydiver’s vertical drop: man and horses are splayed by the velocity of their fall. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God sparks the inert Adam to life as much by the vehemence of his stretch as by his deity. And for hundreds of years after Michelangelo’s death serious artists positioned their figures every which way but loose; the practice is still a staple of superhero comic-book illustrations.

But a significant difference separates these imitators and disciples from their forebear: for all the strength of Michelangelo’s style, it was never simply a display of raw power. Instead he carefully balanced strength and grace. This approach might seem contradictory, like having the Michelin man attempt a plie, but one of the miracles of Michelangelo’s art is that he makes the connection seem natural. Consider his preparatory sketch for The Archers, in which the artist has removed not only the figures’ clothing but their bows and arrows: seven figures push their empty right fists forward while pulling their left hands behind their heads. As if their poses weren’t strenuous enough, Michelangelo has all of them sprinting as well. An Olympic archer couldn’t hit an elephant at three feet from this stance, but the forward thrust of the pose is so compelling it makes bows and arrows seem beside the point.

The preliminary sketches in the show demonstrate how Michelangelo forged his style: he seems to have conceived his figures from the torso out. This is the area that’s always fully rendered and shaded; the angle of the hips and shoulders, the placement of the body’s weight, is the core of every figure he ever painted or sculpted. Faces and forearms are often sketchy and indistinct in these drawings, and the artist seems particularly tentative in the placement of hands: even in fairly finished presentation drawings, the hands shift about. In contrast, the line defining the torso is always clear and solid.

The few idealized heads among the Windsor drawings confirm the low priority Michelangelo gave faces. While his rendering of them could be highly effective, one has only to compare him with a master of facial inflection like Donatello to sense a lack. While Michelangelo’s sculpture often captures the classic calm of faces in Roman statuary, paint and chalk render these faces placid and even a little perfunctory. When Michelangelo drew the head of a warrior, the elaborate helmet revealed more of the turmoil of battle than the man’s visage. When he drew the head of a fair maiden, the coiling coiffure engaged his interest more than the woman herself, staring blankly. Only his studies of grotesque faces mirror the in extremis tension he favored in bodies. But underusing the face isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bernini’s David demonstrates the perils of carrying an energetic message too far: not only is the figure twisted around to release the slingshot, his face is ludicrously screwed up with the effort. What the body says effectively can only be diminished when the face reiterates it.

The strongest image in the show–and indeed one of the strongest in the artist’s whole oeuvre–is the risen Christ. Two drawings here demonstrate Michelangelo’s genius for finding the elemental posture that expresses everything he wants to say: Christ’s whole body arcs, up to the very tips of his fingers, as he bursts from his grave, seeming to physically toss aside all the restrictions of death. And what Michelangelo accomplished with the shroud is a masterstroke: the resurrected figure is nude and entirely unencumbered by his former burial sheet, but the billowing form rises up behind him like something vibrant and alive, amplifying the gesture and the drama of the moment.

The latest work from the collection is a pair of depictions of the crucifixion, executed two years before Michelangelo’s death. His style had undergone a radical change by this point. For a decade he’d been preoccupied with architecture, an interest that evidently altered the way he viewed the human figure. Always elemental in his approach, the artist further stripped his work to essentials. Power was now conveyed not through amplification but through simplification. Wisps of chalk hint at inessentials–most of the composition. The only reality is the body: if this was the hub of all existence for Michelangelo, it was also the most eloquent means for the expression of death, in still forms that movingly suggest the absence of being. Form is no longer conveyed by line but through an accumulation of darkness around the torso. Christ’s face is entirely indistinct, as if death could render even God anonymous. Of the two drawings, the one with the unorthodox cross is the least elaborated and most powerful. The hands are nailed not to a straight horizontal but to two wooden beams angling out at 45 degrees, a rigid Y shape supporting the barest smudge of a body. One realizes with a start that this is the finest piece of abstract art the Renaissance produced.

The catalog accompanying the show is a rather standard mix of pedigree and biography, which is probably just as well: how could it hope to compete with the art? The best exhibitions are revelations: they convey some aspect of an artist’s work rendered obscure by neglect or fame. “Michelangelo and His Influence” catches this most corporeal of artists in the act of thinking: you can’t reveal more than that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michelangelo’s “The Risen Christ”.