Michelangelo: The Drawings of a Genius

Albertina, Vienna Through January 9

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Christ on the Cross with the Virgin Mary and Saint John, 1555–64, black chalk, heightened with white (oxidized), 161⁄8" x 1015⁄16".


The astonishing versatility of Michelangelo Buonarotti, as sculptor, architect, painter, and graphic artist, is firmly and consistently rooted in the genius of his drawings. If there is nothing new in that insight, its implications have perhaps never been so effectively highlighted as in this sumptuous survey curated by Achim Gnann. With more than 100 examples, culled from its own collection and from 30 international museums, the Albertina documents how the drawing served for Michel­angelo both as a means for visual research and as preparation for works in other mediums. Not just a muscled torso but even the curve of a finger or the angle of a foot may have been preceded by a long, laborious phase of preliminary studies. Precisely how and where these studies were integrated into finished compositions is demonstrated here through computer simulations.

During Michelangelo’s long life, the drawing evolved to provide more than the foundation for his other creative work. With his help, it would emerge as an autonomous artistic medium. That process becomes visible here, as one moves from the earliest extant drawing (an apprentice’s copy after Giotto) through the preliminary drafts for the Sistine Chapel frescoes to the late depictions of the Crucifixion, reduced to minimalist forms by an artist approaching his 90th birthday. The sheer scope reminds us of the fact that the artist reflected and influenced esthetic perceptions from the early Italian Renaissance to the dawn of the Baroque period.

Several major projects, including The Battle of Cascina, the Medici Chapel, and studies for the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, also receive attention here, yet the presentation as a whole maintains a captivating intimacy. It is less the grand, theatrical gesture of works commissioned by popes and potentates than the detail that takes center stage here. Above all, this is a humanistic universe, with the body in all its emotional expressivity and heroic power as leitmotif. Thanks to the intimacy of the encounter in this show, fresh insights become possible. One is struck by Michelangelo’s efficient use of paper, for example; the artist often fills every available area with variations on a theme. Since there was no scarcity of high-quality paper at the time, one might suspect horror vacui—but perhaps the artist was simply too engrossed in his work to search for a fresh sheet. The shifts in materials—from ink to black chalk to red chalk in the later period—were accompanied by a formal evolution, as the master tested the esthetic potential of the chosen medium. He could achieve more sculptural effects with black chalk, for example, and more painterly ones with red.

Such insights and speculations literally involve the attentive spectator in a perceptual process, rather than a more passive experience of confronting certified masterpieces. This show, according to its curators, intends “to reposition Michelangelo as a graphic artist.” One cannot underestimate the impact of these works on both the artist’s contemporaries (who went to great lengths to acquire his zealously guarded drawings) and those who came after. Interesting in this context is that Michelangelo often provided artist friends with detailed studies for their own paintings, some of which are also on view at the Albertina. Such gifts are a further, touching example of the generous humanism that so vividly animates his work as a whole.

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