THE TERM ARTIST’S ARTIST means an artist who is a good food source for other artists. It also suggests an unconscious and/or brave level of subjectivity that is implicit within the meaning of, but rarely lives up to, the word artist. Artist’s artists signal their value to other artists not just through their stubborn individuality, but also through their ways of producing art that seem so particular that, whether one likes their work or not, there is life before it and life after it. To refer to Michelangelo as an artist’s artist could be seen as absurd, as he is everyone’s artist, but it’s not so preposterous considering the ways many artists think about dead ones, which is more like a crew at the cocktail party or brawl than in a personal pantheon.
The Bacchanal of Children, 1532–33, is an allegorical drawing consisting of about twenty-six muscular toddlers carrying a dead upside-down horse, all fitting perfectly into a fifteen-by-ten-inch box of space. Each child’s pose is unique and rhythmic. Like the Northern Lights or gravity, the effect of this drawing cannot be adequately explained by science or history. The spectacular nature of Michelangelo’s talent is the ground on which one can stand while contemplating what to contribute to the maelstrom of artistic practices. His talent is useful. Like earth, it is generative.
Our wonder at the talent of Michelangelo is much like his awe at the powers of his god in creating human (particularly male) anatomy. Michelangelo was not, of course, the only Renaissance exemplar of the profane. Earlier, Antonio del Pollaiuolo added muscles over muscles as flesh ornamentations to godlike men, as in the engraving Battle of the Nudes, ca. 1470–90.
Leonardo da Vinci saw love and compassion in the face, and he expressed his wonder at the natural world through studies in anatomy, machinery, and the forces of nature itself. But Michelangelo suggests that the technology of the living body has the potential for moral fulfillment—the movement of his hand over a calf, as he shades it in perfectly spaced lines, has only to do with love.
The richness of the mental image of Michelangelo, pushed against a wet plaster ceiling, conjuring up gods and prophets to lie on top of him, evokes the very human inner command to prostrate ourselves before beauty. His drawing of the backsides of three soldiers in Cartoon with a Group of Soldiers for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1542–46, replicates the experience of tripping up the stairs as one marvels at the desirability of another person a few steps above them; as the mechanics of their ascension acquires the hypnotic brilliance of a holistic experience of the human as a being in motion and a source of immanence. There are few things more humbling than desire. We are routinely brought down by a suddenly revealed armpit or a neck and, though more rarely, by a symphony.
There are a number of wonderful drawings in this exhibition in which multiple studies occupy a single piece of paper. They give us a clue to Michelangelo’s brain at work as he juxtaposes and chooses views while at the same time challenging himself in how many images he could fit onto one sheet without it becoming visually unpleasant (much like the strategies of modern composition).
A study attributed to the artist, Figures for the Sistine Ceiling, 1508–12, contains a melding of a head and a foot, as if the former is thinking the latter, or whose thoughts are contained within a foot-shaped limitation. This is as adequate an allegory for artistic practice as I have ever seen. In Studies of a Left Leg, A Raised Right Arm, and a Bent Right Arm, 1530, Michelangelo turns a leg into a reflected image of an arm. It looks like an anatomical Rorschach pattern. The open palmed hand also looks like it’s coming in for a slap aimed right at the upper half of the leg, crossing through anatomical logic and rubbed out space to fulfill its action. The lyrically discombobulated parts depicted in these studies suggest that the body, for Michelangelo, was not a thing or even a being, but an extension into space, the present, history, and the realms of the moral and the spiritual. If Michelangelo had attempted to define a world of spirit and perfection, like Raphael, he would not be an artist’s artist. He brought art down to the level of us, creatures twisting in the darkness and following the trails of smells and temperature in search of fulfillment.
“Michelangelo: Divine Craftsman and Designer” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through February 12, 2018.