In New York, where interest in the new and novel is insatiable, the show of Michelangelo drawings at the Met is just the shot in the arm a venerable museum needs. I went to view Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer first thing in the morning—okay, ten o’clock—and the turnout was already good. Add this to the recent record sale of a mediocre and questionable painting by Leonardo da Vinci as proof that five-hundred-year-old Florentines are still hot. In contrast to the heat of auction house hype, the Met’s show is far more than sharp marketing. It begins with terrific drawings by his precursors, and moves to sheet upon sheet of Michelangelo’s studies in pen and chalk and charcoal. They are mostly diminutive in scale yet majestic in vision, delighting in the intricacies of anatomy, with a full grasp of the figure’s emotive potential (to understand how much distance Michelangelo put between himself and the previous generation, compare his studies for Battle of Cascina to Antonio del Pollaiolo’s Battle of the Nudes). Many of the drawings are double-sided, framed for observation front and back.
There are also a few rare large cartoons, one extricated from a wall so as to evoke a fragment of antiquity. Another, a study of Roman soldiers for a fresco in the Pauline Chapel, features bigger-than-life-size figures pieced together on many attached sheets. Today we’d call it assemblage or some such, but it was makeshift by necessity, since paper could only be had in small format. Also there are sculptures, architectural drawings and sonnets, the oeuvre of a supreme Renaissance Man. Maybe my favorite moment was the product of a curatorial decision to place the Cartoon of Venus Kissed by Cupid, a large-scale drawing attributed to the master and his workshop, alongside his unfinished marble sculpture Apollo-David. Neither work is his best, but together they encapsulate the nearly incomprehensible ambition, talent and intellectual restlessness that found expression in his figures’ balanced twists and turns. In short, this is the real deal, with more of Michelangelo’s drawings than we’ll see in one place again. Michelangelo was, almost incidentally among his many skills, one of the greatest figure draftsmen ever. Drawing—with the exception of the Battle of Cascina cartoon, torn apart by avid students—was not part of his public presentation. He burned his drawings in at least two bonfires. Almost nothing in the current show was meant to be seen.
Michelangelo was the first artist to fully and spectacularly identify male muscular development with a vital Christianity, a melding of body and spirit. Popes saw him as a vehicle for the glory of the Vatican and themselves. What with our interest in private lives, we’re apt to see him differently. There is, to modern eyes, a subtext to the physical perfection of his figures, abetted by the artist’s personal letters and poetry written to young men. That subject is unambiguous in the adjacent exhibition, a retrospective of David Hockney’s work, which ought to be ensconced in Met Breuer, but here it is, in a juxtaposition that may be viewed as either blasphemous or a whimsical tonic to the serious cogitation of the High Renaissance.
When the male nude appears in Hockney’s art, it does so in domestic surroundings, with a matter-of-fact eroticism. Skin and bone, those physical elements of deepest significance to Michelangelo, are no more important than lucite, chlorine or chrome. Hockney has cycled through Pop Art, Cubism, Naturalism, Photo-collage, and perhaps a half-dozen other movements; these permutations strike one less as evidence of a Picasso-esque appetite than the directional changes of a pop star. A cohesive trait throughout Hockney’s career is weightlessness. The colors are bright, the surfaces flat, the viewpoint deadpan. His paintings from the 1960s and early 1970s, after he moved from England to the west coast of the U.S., are more recognizably Californian than an Eagles video. It’s conceded that his paintings of that time captured the spirit of the place, but it’s a shiny, hermetic spirit, a world of surfaces. The particular chill of Hockney’s style found its most enduring expression in a series of large double portraits; among the best is a beautiful depiction of the artist’s parents. The subjects prompted a technical and psychological rigorousness, and apparently a greater emotional investment. Hockney’s draftsmanship in these portraits is razor’s-edged, so sharp that it got me asking the same question Hockney asked in front of Ingres: how much do the canvases owe to mechanical aids? I thought he was wrong in assigning so much credit to cameras obscura and lucida in Old Master paintings, a theory whose overreaching application suggested that Hockney was loath to acknowledge the superior talents of others, or was simply rationalizing his fascination with photography. The follow-up question is whether it makes a difference either way, and the answer is yes. There is a distinction between great cleverness in picture making and great painting.
That heightened examples of realism have raised suspicions of “cheating” is a phenomenon not limited to two-dimensional art. A few steps up the corridor from the entrances to Michelangelo and Hockney is The Age of Bronze, Rodin’s first masterwork. The centerpiece of the Met’s Rodin collection—now highlighted in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the artist’s death—The Age of Bronze engendered a wave of criticism when first shown, in the mistaken belief that it had been cast directly from the model—the three-dimensional equivalent of tracing a projected photograph. Proximity to the Michelangelo show, whether or not by design, is providential. It was more than three centuries before Michelangelo found a worthy successor in Rodin, another sculptor with a profound appreciation for tragedy. As is the case with many artists, both men were initially moved by traditional precedent and the naturalism inspired by the presence of a live model. Michelangelo had the good fortune to be apprenticed as a child to Domenico Ghirlandaio, then welcomed in the court of the Medicis. Rodin’s education was more protracted; alienated from prevailing neoclassical standards, it took a trip to Italy in 1875 to light his fuse: “It is Michelangelo,” he said, “who has freed me from academic sculpture.”
Even at rest, both artist’s figures manifest tremendous physical and intellectual restlessness—Rodin’s Thinker is the anxious descendant of Michelangelo’s Lorenzo de Medici. The handling of material in their late works is similarly impetuous. Michelangelo’s rough-hewn marbles have a parallel in Rodin’s gouged clay surfaces. And both artists conceived their figures as independent, if not isolated, entities. This is so whether the figures are meant to stand alone or are arranged in groups. The anonymous ‘athletes’ who adorn the Sistine ceiling, essentially decorative, are best appreciated one by one. For his Gates of Hell, Rodin assembled figures that are more satisfying individually than collectively. The most significant difference was that Michelangelo envisioned biblical personae in relation to a formidable God, so that their actions carried eternal ramifications. Rodin created in the context of 19th century humanism, and the tribulations of his subjects are less apt to reference Old Testament salvation and damnation (that said, what else is The Gates of Hell but an updating of the Sistine Chapel Last Judgment?). There is an internal harmony in the gestures of Michelangelo—there had to be, since he was also an architect—whereas Rodin often preferred awkward and animalistic postures that diverge from classical rhythms. For Rodin, sexuality comes to the fore, as in Iris, Messenger of the Gods, a work whose title is as much an afterthought as The Age of Bronze. Michelangelo’s admiration of the human body required a religious program as justification; Rodin could celebrate the body on its own terms.
Rodin’s masterpiece, my favorite three-dimensional artwork, resides in the Met’s sculpture garden on the ground floor. It is the Burghers of Calais, six men confronting their mortality in various stages of grief or resignation. In return for their act of self-sacrifice—during the Hundred Years’ War, a handful of French civic leaders offered their lives so that their town would be spared—no Redemption is proffered, just the fabric of the robes that lay heavily on mortal frames, and the gravity of expressions and movements of men who tread a circle of despair. Faces and hands are articulated with an aptitude that evokes Rodin’s earlier realism, but proportions, especially those of the figures’ extremities, are distorted for effect, as if to emphasize the subjects’ attachment to the material world. Michelangelo, too, was inclined to distortion in his drawing and sculpture, though away from naturalism and toward a spiritual heroism. This is fitting. Michelangelo worked in marble, lightening a block and “releasing” the figure as he carved into it. Rodin preferred clay, which necessitated constant accretion of material, the amassing of substance.At the Met this season, they very nearly meet on the second floor.