Fanciful Traces

Fanciful Traces

Fanciful Traces

The big picture.
Nov. 27 1996 3:30 AM

Fanciful Traces

Michelangelo's whimsical sketches.

Michelangelo and His Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle

National Gallery, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 5, 1997

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The British royal family, as everyone knows by now, has an image problem. What better solution than to export some of their most prestigious but rarely seen images, the drawings of Michelangelo, for public display in the wide world? Tucked away in a ground-floor corner of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., are some of the finest drawings to be seen in the United States just now. There are 22 by the master himself (as compared with fewer than 10 in all the American collections combined), and another 50 drawings by contemporaries and successors that betray his influence. Fanned out in six rooms arranged like a beehive, with the lights turned low to protect the fragile treasures (and lend a mood of reverence to the occasion), the enthralling show is called "Michelangelo and His Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle."

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Even in his own time, Michelangelo (1475-1564) was recognized as having no peer in sculpture, drawing, or architecture. Only the multitalented Leonardo da Vinci, with his greater intellectual range, rivals the younger Michelangelo among Renaissance artists. "Anyone who has seen Michelangelo's David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead," gushed his first biographer, his contemporary Giorgio Vasari. Vasari's account of Michelangelo's heroic labors in the Sistine Chapel has entered popular lore. It's hard not to think of Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Alone on the high scaffold, paint dripping into his upturned eyes, he pushes forward with his Sisyphean task as Rex Harrison (playing Michelangelo's impatient patron, Pope Julius II) paces angrily below.

Heroism, seriousness, monumental grandeur--these are all part of the Michelangelo legend. But the drawings in the National Gallery invite us to discover another Michelangelo, an artist of delicacy and pictorial wit. Consider the exquisite airborne Archers, who, while Cupid sleeps in the foreground, send their errant arrows toward the target. Few hit their mark, and no wonder--for those archers, we suddenly realize, aren't holding bows. No one knows the meaning of this enigmatic, red-chalk drawing--while Cupid sleeps, love goes awry? But the sheer joy of the image is contagious. Where Archers suggests the light-footed world of dreams, the grotesque mask situated among the Ideal Heads in the first room--its headdress borrowed, it seems, from the Statue of Liberty--evokes an earthbound world where the human and animal realms are not easily distinguished. Is this a man disguised as a lion, or a lion turning into a man? The bared teeth are clearly human, but the feral eyes, looking sharply to the side; the curling upper lip; and the bristling facial hair suggest a cat-person ready to pounce.

Leonine, too, is Hercules, performing three labors in one of the dazzling PresentationDrawings--finished drawings that were given to friends and patrons--in the next room. As he pries open the Vulcanian jaws of the Nemean lion, the hero's own lion-skin disguise hovers like a halo over his back, as though he can't throw off his animal identity so easily. Across the same sheet, Hercules fumbles with the Hydra. We know he's going to lop off those serpentine heads, one of which is biting him brazenly in the rear. But as Michelangelo conceives him, Hercules seems to be dancing with the Hydra, as though he's drawing from this encounter some of the writhing, erotic energy of the monster. A humorless pen-and-ink drawing of the same subject by Raphael that appears later in the show depicts Hercules staring down the Hydra. The awkward crosshatching makes one wonder why Michelangelo was so competitive, not to say bitchy, about his rival. "What Raphael had of art," he wrote in a 1542 letter, "he had of me." Raphael had been dead for 20 years.

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M ichelangelo's metamorphic wit, somewhere between the nightmare transformations of his fellow Florentine Dante Alighieri and the baroque fantasies of Lorenzo Bernini, is nowhere better displayed than in his famous drawing of Phaëthon's fall. Phaëthon, you'll remember, wanted to drive his father's car--that is, Apollo's--across the sky. He lost control, as young drivers will, and Jupiter, astride his eagle, shot him down with a lightning bolt. Intertwined with his four magnificent horses, Phaëthon turns his splendid body toward us one last time. "An image of the consequences of pride and vanity," says the sober wall label. Perhaps. But Phaëthon's fall, like the cascading forms in Michelangelo's Sistine Last Judgment, has its own headlong ecstasy. His three anxious sisters, watching from the ground below, are beginning to turn into trees--their punishment for their brother's hubris.

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Michelangelo gave the drawing of Phaëthon to Tommaso de' Cavalieri, the Roman nobleman to whom he addressed some of his most passionate sonnets--Michelangelo was a gifted poet, too. "According to your will," he told Cavalieri, "I'm hot in the harshest winter, cold in the sun." While Michelangelo's homosexuality has long been assumed--the Victorian critic Walter Pater wrote of his "vague and wayward loves"--there is no evidence that Cavalieri reciprocated his feelings.

Another drawing given to Cavalieri takes Michelangelo's transforming wit to a whole new level. It depicts the giant Tityus, whose punishment for raping the goddess Leto was to have his liver ripped out each day by a vulture, only to have it grow back each night. Michelangelo's Tityus reclines on his craggy bed of rock, from which his muscular body seems to have been sculpted. His punishment looks like another rape, with the vulture having its way with the bound and lustful (and apparently acquiescent) giant. A tree with an open-jawed face--one of Dante's damned souls, perhaps--screams in the background.

Then, as if this weren't masterly enough, Michelangelo did something amazing. He flipped the sheet of paper over, rotated it 90 degrees, and traced the now-upright form of Tityus. The tortured giant became the risen Christ, stepping from his tomb. The viewer goes around and around the free-standing frame to see just how Michelangelo did it. And what subversive intent, what wicked wit, was at work here? Did the artist mean to imply an erotic side of Christ, a mortification of human desire rewarded by bodily resurrection? No wonder Michelangelo's contemporaries were in awe of him and tried to follow his intimidating lead.

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E xhibitions billed as showing a major artist "and his influence" are sometimes excuses for including inferior art to fill out an occasion. While there are a few too many drawings by various accomplished hands "after" Michelangelo originals, this show feels winnowed down and sharply focused. Some of these drawings have their own distinctive flavor, showing less Michelangelo's influence than his provocation. Annibale Carracci's Ignudo (1597) transforms one of the languorous young male nudes of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling into a wily, satyr-like character--he could be Shakespeare's Mercutio. Indeed, the grandeur and flashing wit of the surly Florentine and the enigmatic Englishman have much in common. There are the towering achievements of both--the public buildings, the tragedies--and the unexpected delights on a smaller scale.

We expect to be awed by the sheer size and marmoreal magnificence of David, the Sistine Chapel, the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. These have a public purpose, captured in the Irish poet William Butler Yeats' lines about the best-known Sistine image: "That girls at puberty may find/ The first Adam in their thought." There's a different, but no less intense, pleasure to be derived from these miracles worked up from the meager materials of paper and chalk. Never designed for public exhibition, these experimental sketches and gifts for intimate friends have a distinctive power, like secrets revealed, or conversations overheard.

N.B.: The preceding images are not from Michelangelo and His Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle (online reproduction of art in the National Gallery exhibition is forbidden). They are photographs of works from the Louvre, Paris.