Follow Us on Twitter

Michelangelo Drawings: Closer To The Master (Review)

Feature by James Haddrell

MOST people can name a work of art by Michelangelo. He is one of those artists, like Picasso or Monet or Damien Hirst, who characterise a whole period in art.

Whether it’s the colossal sculpture of David, the back-breaking ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the heart-wrenching Pietá, Michelangelo’s achievements in both sculpture and painting have guaranteed him a permanent place in art history.

However, whilst he is known as sculptor, painter and architect, Michelangelo’s works were created through a relentless process of working and reworking on paper before he ever picked up a chisel or a paintbrush.

Despite the fact that he burnt large quantities of his drawings before his death around 600 survived, only to be spread around the world when his studio was dispersed. Of those, around 90 have now been reunited, offering a unique overview of his career.

In 1487, at the age of just 12, Michelangelo was apprenticed to the Florentine painter, Ghirlandaio, and the exhibition opens with a number of drawings by the older painter.

Later in life, Michelangelo was to claim that he was self-taught, but the schematic poses and sharp edges of his own early drawings reveal his debt to his teacher.

That said, the thing that Michelangelo brought to drawing is the feeling of weight. The examples on show from this period reveal a precocious young artist who was already looking at the world through the eyes of a sculptor.

Where Ghirlandaio used preparatory drawings to map out a design, an arrangement of shapes to be transferred to a canvas, Michelangelo’s use of shading gives his sketches a feeling of three-dimensional depth, of sculpture in the making. Just 12 years later, with the unveiling of his Pietá, Michelangelo was to become one of the most sought after sculptors in the world.

In 1504, he and his arch-rival, Leonardo da Vinci, were commissioned to paint a pair of gigantic murals celebrating the military successes of the Florentines.

Both would have been acutely aware that when exhibited side by side the two works, one by the acknowledged Renaissance master and one by the emerging young superstar, would decide in the minds of all who saw them which was the greater artist.

This comparison was never allowed as neither ever completed their mural, but the one piece of evidence of Michelangelo’s design – another artist’s copy of a large scale drawing – is reproduced in the exhibition.

The original has been lost, but a comparison of some of Michelangelo’s own preparatory drawings with the copy shows Michelangelo’s unique approach. Where the copy has a polished finish, the many flailing bodies coming together to form an undulating pattern on the canvas, the individual sketches have a vibrancy lost in the copy. Anticipating the twisting physicality of the Baroque, Michelangelo’s figures are stretched to their limits, their muscles forced into violent contortions, the rage and pain of battle shown through the violence of the bodies.

One of the reasons for the aborted commission came direct from the Vatican when Pope Julius II called Michelangelo to Rome to work on a number of projects, including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Ghirlandaio had been midway through painting a fresco cycle during Michelangelo’s apprenticeship and this is likely the only experience the younger artist had of the technique, but convinced of his own ability he sacked his team of assistants and chose to work alone.

A number of sketches for the project, which was to take him a surprisingly short four years, are present in the exhibition. They are drawn in incredibly careful detail, with lead white added to the chalk to highlight the hollows and ridges of the human body. Whether because he knew that his drawings were themselves attracting interest, or simply because he wanted them to represent the planned paintings as closely as possible, his drawings had become works of art in their own right.

For the last 30 years of his life, Michelangelo worked increasingly as an architect, but even here his sketches reveal his artistic sensibility. Comparing his sketches of architectural features to a codex of the time shows his continuing use of shading to show the effects of light upon his buildings. Even when designing a building his drawings were not the measured line drawings of a draughtsman but rather the emotive sketches of an artist.

As his life drew to a close Michelangelo’s faith became an ever more powerful force in his life, and the last three exhibits in the exhibition are heavily reworked illustrations of the Crucifixion, not drawn as preparatory studies for either sculpture or painting, but as devotional objects for a friend.

If his understanding of his drawings as individual artworks had been kindled in the days of the Sistine Chapel, it had reached fruition here. What began when Michelangelo was just 12, as part of the technical preparation of any painting or sculpture had, by the time he reached old age, become the means to produce a work of art in itself.

b>Buy tickets now

Picture Credit: Michelangelo Buonarotti, Study for Adam, c.1510-11 © British Museum

Michelangelo Drawings: Closer To The Master
Supported by BP
Until June 25, 2006
British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG
Tel: 020 7323 8000;
Sat – Wed: 10am–5.30pm; Thu–Fri 10am–8.30pm.
Tickets: £10 (concessions available).