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Michelangelo Drawings:
Closer to the Master reviewed by Alex Russell, 21.3. 2006


"In the work, the happening of truth is at work…We think of creation as a bringing forth…The establishing of truth in the work is the bringing forth of a being such as never was before and will come to be again."

Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, 1935.


Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master is made up of the master’s work drawn from the collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean and the Teyler Museum in Haarlem and covers sixty years of Michelangelo's tempestuous life.

The British Museum is promoting the exhibition as "works that Michelangelo, the perfectionist, wouldn't have wanted anyone to see." - and has already sold more than 10,000 advance tickets - a new record for the museum.

Hugo Chapman, curator of Italian drawings at the British Museum said: "Michelangelo just wanted you to look at his finished work and be overwhelmed by it and not realize that it's the result of thousands of decisions. He wouldn't have been pleased to see us surveying his working drawings."

Michelangelo did not wish us to see his private preliminary sketches which were not made for public consumption but only served as tools for his trade as painter-sculptor – they were not even meant to be kept and he destroyed many of them or gave them away: drawing for Michelangelo was a means to an end - an act of rehearsal – rehearsing the score of the image to be made in paint or stone. Like I consider Nietzsche as essentially a composer of musical words rather than a writer-philosopher so I see Michelangelo as a maker of musical composition rather than a artist-draughtsman. Seeing Michelangelo’s drawings in the flesh made me hear them for the first time as musical compositions – scores of being – scores of the body – where the muscle becomes the metre and the mood the music of the body

Rather than write a review in reflection - after the event I am transcribing the raw and rough notes I took in front of the images – I have chosen to use note-form to retain the fresh sensations that were thrown forth: a shopping list of rough notes as akin to a sketch rather than the finished polish of the usual art review.



Some rough sketches on Michelangelo’s drawings:


- the line in his drawings gives the sensation of music – like reading a musical score - the music of the muscles - essentially a musical rather than visual sensation - like musical compositions – muscular bodies as analogous to musical scores – bodies becoming musical instruments – a rhythmic muscular musical sculptural sensation – they are heard rather than seen – sketches equivalent to musical notations -




No. 25: Study for Adam


- his head has come off – he has come off – all laid back - a loitering lingering line – man making muscular music – a thrusting rhythmic throwness – but why does Adam have a navel? – the body wears the head that is not there – is the torso’s face his self portrait – taut – tough – hard – horny? a solitary severed hand hovers ahead as an anchor for the arising attitude – awaiting the touch of god that will give him life – and a head – not a navel – he made god in his own image - in man’s image – for the first time here - man becomes god-



No. 26: A Seated Male Nude


– the back of the body is both a musical score and an instrument that plays music – muscular musical writhing rhythms seem to spill from the spine and the raw ribs radiate and look like harp strings – the ribs are key board – also almost crab-like and shell-like – the back is hard, taut and bony as well as being soft, silky and sensual all at once – this extraordinarily powerful drawing has more vigour and immediacy in its fresh fleshiness than the subsequent fresco -



No. 33: Christ at the Column


- the face thrusts out of the body – as if being born from the body - shoulder and arm have a shimmering haze sending rhythmic ripples out whilst the writhing twisting figure is falling forth yet still tied up to the column - the left body contour has been heavily reworked and extended – exaggerated – to contrast with the sturdy left leg which is bearing the heavy weight of the slumped agonised body – the torso wears the agonising mood of the struggling psyche – the taut torso muscles become the mood of the mind going mad – a foretaste of the agonies to come -



No. 49: Studies for Day


- a face of a lion emerges through the flesh from the left shoulder blade – the exaggerated musculature make the lion face seemingly smile out at you – muscles frown – muscles muse – muscles have moods – muscles make music – taut tones – taut tunes with wrought rhythms – this is man mutated - beyond being human - becoming alien -




No. 52: The Left Foot of Day


the left foot of day is by far the greatest foot ever drawn – so bony - so snaky – so slithery – elegantly elongated and aiming ahead as if an antennae of the leg – the toe becomes the eye of the leg: the foot become the head of being in itself – the mind is in the foot – the toe nail is the eye of being – the nail nails the nerves - the toe nail sees ahead – treading tentatively - the sole of the foot carries the soul of being – for the soul is in the sole – a perfectly articulated foot has a face of its own – the toe nail sees all -



No. 53: A Left Leg & Four Studies of a Knee (Day)


- kneecaps looking like elephant skulls – i see an elephant eye staring out - staring out at you – the kneecaps become elephant foreheads – hard and helmet like – the psyche of the knee as a bony being – he sees faces in the gnarled knees – he depicts the sinews and muscles with an ιcorchι-like clarity – the knee is the face of the leg - no one does knees with such an alien akin –





No. 70: Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi


- a free-floating-thing – melting-mesmerizing magnetic-magnificent – his haunting fresh face rejects and attracts you - all at once - pulls you in - turns you away – luminous - lost-in-love – love-lost – lost-love – i can’t see it – i can’t get close up to it – it is not drawn with the hand of a man – it is drawn by the hand of a god – not even made by hand – not even made – but blown on by breath - i miss his gaze – he misses his gaze – he misses our gaze - the hand is not present in the marks – they are blown on – sown on – thrown on - his eyes – thrown away – an abimage abjecting us all – exquisitely – with admirable sfumato -




No. 106: The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John


- shimmering-shuddering - dissolving-dangling - hanging-hovering – flying-floating: having-a-hang-over – being-well-hung - suspended in an alien space – we have lift-off – Christ flying-off – so heavy but so weightless - being-becoming-nothing – nothing-to-see – to see-the-nothing – drawing-the-nothing – a-life-of-drawing – a-life-time-drawing – time-drawing – life drawing - drawing away -



On leaving the exhibition I felt as if a flash of lightning had hit me illuminated by the brightness of his being – I felt that I had gazed at the hand of God – touched by the hand of God - things were not the same as they were before - I was elevated and everything became beautifully bright.

If you want a life enhancing experience do not miss this beautifully curated exhibition – an absolutely unique event.




Alex Russell


The exhibition will be supported by an extensive public programme for young and adult audiences. This will include family drawing days, exhibition talks, lectures, study sessions, and a film season. For more information please contact the press office. Provisions have been made for visitors with visual or hearing impairment.


BP is the British Museum’s largest and most longstanding corporate sponsor, supporting the Museum on an annual basis since 1998. Most recently, BP supported ‘Forgotten Empire: the world of Ancient Persia’ and ‘Mummy: the inside story’.



I fully recommend the accompanying exhibition catalogue by Hugo Chapman: Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master; 320 pages, 200 colour, 80 black and white illustrations; British Museum Press, ISBN 0 7141 2648: paper back £25, hard back £40.



Related exhibition: Michelangelo: money and medals
Admission free, Room 69a, The British Museum.



The BP Special Exhibition runs between 23 March – 25 June 2006, Room 5 British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1. Adult admission £10, various concessionary rates apply. Pre-booking recommended. Tel: 0207-323-8000







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