‘Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer’ Opens at The Met

Michelangelo is an artist who needs no introduction, but if he did, the new show at The Met wouldn’t be too shabby.  “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsmen will be on view until Feb. 12, no exceptions. The show will not be extended, since the allotted time is the only safe amount of light many of the delicate pieces can be exposed to without serious damage. The Met has pulled from 53 other museums and collections to bring this show together, making it live up to the hype of being genuinely once-in-a-lifetime.

There has been new scholarship into Michelangelo’s early years, and the curators have chosen to include pieces from his instructor, Domenico Ghirlandaio, in whose workshop Michelangelo briefly worked as a lad. The exhibition includes works by Ghirlandaio in the first gallery to titillating effect, creating an anticipation to see the great master’s work. Not to worry, there is plenty to see.

“Young Archer” is the first sculpture of the exhibition, executed by Michelangelo at a young age, and contains a great backstory to boot: the statue stood in the French Embassy in New York for many years until experts eventually identified it as a bona fide Michelangelo sculpture in the 90s. Included as well is Michelangelo’s fabled first painting, “The Torment of Saint Anthony,” a Medieval-style painting full of whimsical demons flocking around a serene Saint Anthony.

Michelangelo traded in his adolescent whimsy for a mature interest in the human form: the heroic male body would be his main focus for most of his career. These idealized men cease to be human in their absurd muscularity, they’re something like superheroes who have too many muscles to make sense, but are nonetheless visually arresting. They prance and play, fight and flee, and sometimes even just rest. One picture features an elderly sleeping man, probably a workshop attendant swindled into staying late for the artist to sketch him.

The centerpiece of the show is the rather awkward re-creation of the Sistene Chapel ceiling, one quarter in size, illuminated from behind. What’s more interesting, actually, is the inclusion of the artist’s preparatory drawings for the ceiling. There is a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing plans for pieces that were meant only for patron’s eyes. It is historically tickling to visualize the mercantile reality of an artist’s life in the Renaissance, even of the great master who would come to be revered as a god (really!).  

The real tragedy of an artist of such immense talent and longevity is that so many of his greatest projects went unfinished. “The Tomb of Pope Julius II” is the prime example, a project that occupied forty years of Michelangelo’s focus, and was never fully completed as he had originally planned. But he did certainly finish plenty, as evidenced in this exhibition. The tremendously muscled male form in every imaginable position, saints draped in heavy, sculptural robes, and architectural brainstorms may all occupy a single sheet, some forms fully hashed out, others left as simple squiggles. The viewer can nearly hear the red chalk or charcoal scraping on the paper as the artist scratches away in his studio late into the night, working away at just one more drawing, and one more, and one more.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsmen” is at The Met Fifth Avenue Nov. 13, 2017 – Feb. 12, 2018.