A Masterful Exhibition of Michelangelo Drawings at the Met

Archers Shooting at a Herm by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Drawing, 1530-33. (Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017,
This unprecedented assemblage of the Old Master’s work on paper doesn’t disappoint.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication.

‘Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s majestic new show, includes 133 of the Old Master’s drawings, an unparalleled survey of his work on paper. Drawing was foundational for Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), so what we see in the Met show is, in effect, the genesis of his sculpture, architecture, and painting. There are many loans we’ll never see again, and many lenders. The Royal Collection, I learned, lent so many things that Queen Elizabeth was required to personally sign the loan contracts.

Michelangelo saw himself as the older Leonardo’s competitor and heir, but he was also the herald of a new, assertive, muscular style. The figures and ambiance in the work of Leonardo and the much-younger Raphael are serene, languid, even wispy. Those artists made establishment art that set the standard followed by their contemporaries. But Michelangelo, the new boy in Florence and, later, in Rome, packed a wallop. There’s plenty of muscle on display at the Met in his drawings of both men and women. His figures are not just nude but naked and frankly carnal. Though made of chalk, charcoal, and ink, they twist and strain to free themselves from the paper so we can touch them. They might look indecorous, but they are unique: He crafted figures like no one else before him.

They also seem in a hurry. It’s no surprise that so many drawings depict only legs and arms, as if Michelangelo sought new ways to inject restlessness into his art. His “Risen Christ” from the Royal Collection looks and feels like a launched rocket. When I saw this drawing, I thought less of the Resurrection and religion in general and more of a champion Olympic athlete finishing his performance with a flourish. “The Archers,” also from the Royal Collection, is fascinating. At least a dozen men aim at a mysterious, herm-like figure, but Michelangelo doesn’t give them bows and arrows, because weaponry isn’t the point so much as strength, variety of pose, and the conversion of the human into a cranking, well-oiled machine.

Even late drawings, like “Study for a Crucifixion” (circa 1560), done in what art historians call his “trembling hand technique,” have an electric, tense quality, and that’s no accident: For Michelangelo, temperament dictated style. “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid, and deprived posterity of any students who might have followed him,” wrote a contemporary observer. Carmen Bambach, the show’s curator, describes him as “proud, at times to a fault, fiercely determined, bluntly direct, prickly, impatient, and quick to perceive insults.” He had an explosive temper, too. “He is terrible,” Pope Leo X once said. “One cannot work with him.” The lines in his drawings are sublime, but the power, libertine-like freedom, and abandon of the figures they create can only be described as “rough.”

The Crucifixion (recto); Study for the crucified Christ (verso) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Drawing, 1560. (The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford inv.)

I believe in “less is more,” and while I would not have sacrificed a single drawing, I would have consolidated some sections and eliminated one or two entirely. The section on Sebastiano Del Piombo and Michelangelo, for instance, felt like a detour more than an integral piece of the narrative. In the magisterial catalogue, there are lots of authors and many short essays. Some, like a biographical piece on the artist’s friend Tommaso de’Cavaliere and an essay on the Laurentian Library, are tangential to the main topic. The Met currently has no director to say “basta” when a book or installation wanders too far from the curator’s central and brilliant new findings. It shows.

The visitor’s experience of the show is also less than perfect. To the Met’s credit, each small drawing is afforded enough space to make a distinctive statement and be taken in by the viewer. But that impulse inevitably clashes with the museum’s wish to accommodate the demands a must-see show presents, allowing as many customers in as possible: The show is always packed, uncomfortably so.

All that said, it’s in a show of this kind that the Met most resembles a research university in a way few other museums ever could. It hires as curators some of the most distinguished scholars in the world, among them Mrs. Bambach. It gave her permission to visit dozens of public and private collections to find the best drawings, to develop the objects list, and to negotiate the loans. The selection of art for a show like this is never straightforward. Almost always, the curator will find things not seen in many years or even centuries. Old ideas will change and new themes and comparisons will emerge. This takes time, and time isn’t cheap.

The Risen Christ, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Drawing, 1520-30. (Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

The Met’s prestige moves mountains in getting loans. With a huge, stellar collection, the museum itself lends constantly and accumulates chits used when it wants art for its own shows. The Met isn’t demure about spending for a landmark show. It can pay for shipping and insurance. It can fund a scholarly catalogue as essential for Renaissance studies as it is broadly unmarketable. And it can mount a single-venue show, with no partner to share costs. Owners limit the light exposure these drawings get, so most will lend to two venues for short runs or one venue for a longer run. Bambach chose to go it alone, and it was clearly the right choice.

The Met recently decided to impose a hefty $25 admission charge on almost all visitors without a New York state I.D. (Children under twelve will still be admitted for free, and Connecticut and New Jersey college students will be allowed to pay what they wish as before.) The museum’s masters say they need the extra revenue to they can keep mounting big, breathtaking, transformative shows like this one. I’m skeptical that they’re quite so broke. But if they are, rather than charging the public, they should ditch almost everything else in their budget to pay for future blockbusters. Because “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” is sure to be thought about, learned from, and cited for as long as scholars study its namesake.


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