Saturday, December 16, 2017

David Hockney at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

David Hockney

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
November 27, 2017 - February 25, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It is premature to use the word "retrospective" in regard to the life work of David Hockney. The major new Hockney exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is best thought of in terms of the word "reappraisal." Brilliant works are on view, lots of new insights for the taking - and no end in sight to Hockney's creative power. 

David Hockney at the Met appeared at Tate Britain earlier in 2017. The subtitle of the Tate show was well-chosen: Sixty Years of Work. This brilliantly-curated exhibit surveys every phase of Hockey's prodigious career, from his "five minutes" of Pop Art in the early 1960's to the current landscapes of his native Yorkshire like A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March, painted in 2006. 

To the delight of journalists and the Metropolitan staff, Hockney appeared at the Met's press preview shortly before Thanksgiving. Dressed as if he had just come in from the tree-lined lanes near his home in Bridlington, Yorkshire, Hockney seemed a bit out of place in the crowded museum gallery. But when he looked up from under the brim of his cap, the probing gaze of a great artist was very much in evidence.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) David Hockney at the Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 20, 2017     
Hockney was born in 1937. He is one of the last generation in Britain born before the advent of television. Hockney grew-up looking at the "big picture" - of nature and the movies, to which he has been addicted since childhood. This is an important point which explains much of the form and content of his art. 

Hockney emphasized his life experiences in a series of interviews in 2006 with the British art historian and critic, Martin Gayford. These interviews  were published in the book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (Thames & Hudson, 2016, 2nd edition).
Hockney is well-versed in art history and he quoted to Gayford the proverbial wisdom of Chinese sages that artists "need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart."  

All three in combination - the hand, the eye and the heart - are necessary. Two won't do. 

Hockney  believes that this ancient wisdom is "very, very good." From the incredible array of works on view at the Met, it is clear that he possesses all three attributes in abundance, along with amazing resilience and vitality.
"I seem to have more energy than I did a decade ago, when I was sixty," Hockney told Gayford. "The Chinese are very good on the subject of art. Another saying of theirs I very much like is that painting is an old man's art, meaning that the experience of life and looking at the world accumulates as you get older."

Hockney's first major works from the early 1960's show references to the color field painting of Abstract Expressionists like Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella. These "Ab Ex" elements were integrated into works bearing strong figurative and narrative content.  Hockney's Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians,1965, is a prime example of his acknowledgement of the waning influence of "Ab Ex" art as the 1950's gave way to the "swinging 60's.".

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) David Hockney’s Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians,1965

Hockney came of age just as it became obvious that "Ab Ex" was not to be going to become the new, universal classicism. Hockney dabbled with Pop art too, as can be seen in the painting of a box of tea packets, Typhoo Tea, the band he drank at home in Yorkshire.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) 
David Hockney’s Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style,1961

Hockney's Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style was painted while he was a student at the Royal College of Art. It was one of four works, each painted in a different style, that Hockney exhibited in the 1962 Young Contemporaries student show.

Right from the start, Hockey demonstrated that he could master any technique. This early exhibit also demonstrated that he was going to paint like nobody but David Hockney.

If one is going to focus on a definitive influence on Hockney, I think his comments to Gayford about the power of cinema are worthy of consideration. Growing up in Bradford, Hockey went to the movies regularly, as most people did before television. He and his family sat in the cheap seats, close to the screen. Immersed in the "big picture," the young Hockney developed an eye for detail.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017)
Detail of David Hockney’s Self Portrait 30th Sept. 1983

"I've always had intense pleasure from looking...," Hockney commented to Gayford. 
"Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately."

In speaking with Gayford, Hockney compared this super-engaged attentiveness with the sharpened perception of combat troops. In the battle zone, every nerve of a soldier's eyes is engaged in detecting the presence of danger. Hockney told Gayford that he was impressed with the term that American GIs in Vietnam used to describe such heightened visual sensitivity: "eye-fucks."

"It might have been the only time in their lives when they looked with that intensity," Hockney said.

While the Vietnam War raged, Hockney looked - and lived - with intensity in California. Hockney's A Bigger Splash shows how he embraced the California lifestyle and the use of new artistic materials, in this case acrylic paints.                                                                                                                                                                                        
David Hockney, A Bigger Splash,1967

In this sensational painting, created in 1967, we see only the spray of water, revealing that a swimmer, perhaps Hockney himself, has plunged below the cool, glassy blue surface of the pool.

The culmination of Hockney’s California experience during the 1960’s was painted in 1972. The tremendously moving Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was actually created near Saint-Tropez in the south of France. But the whole “feel” of the picture is California, a tribute in part to the success of Hockney’s work in spreading the appeal of the California lifestyle to Europe.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) 
David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1967

The clothed figure is Peter Schlesinger, who for five years had been Hockney’s partner. Their break-up, devastating to Hockney, was recorded in a 1971 painting devoid of any human references except for Schlesinger’s sandals, left by the pool side.

A year later, in Portrait of an Artist, Hockney placed Peter Schlesinger back in the picture. Previously he had painted Schlesinger in the nude, in swimming pool scenes. Here, he is a fully-dressed, melancholy figure. Hamlet in a summer sport coat.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1967

Schlesinger is forever separated from the swimmer doing the breaststroke in the cool aqua water. But it is not his clothing that keep Schlesinger transfixed to the tiled deck of the pool. Rather an emotional barrier, unseen but very palpable, stands between him and the sensually inviting life that he had enjoyed in Hockney's company so many times before.

Portrait of an Artist is really several paintings, flawlessly combined by Hockney into a work of almost cosmic intensity. There are three separate planes of existence: the swimmer in the pool, the almost statue-like Schlesinger and, off in the background, a glorious expanse of verdant, hilly terrain that looks like heaven brought to earth.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1967

This sublime landscape exerts a living presence, as well as foreshadowing the large-format landscapes of Hockney’s recent years. These, as we will see, are composite works also, seamlessly integrated to create a greater, grander whole.

Following the break-up with Schlesinger, Hockney visited Japan, searching for inspiration. But Hockney was disappointed. Japan was heavily industrialized by this point. He was also  struggling with the constraints of naturalism in painting, the very genre which he had so brilliantly articulated in 1960's California.

Hockney's greatest work from his Japanese trip - and it is one of his most famous - was painted after he returned. Hockney did not work from notes or sketches but rather used a souvenir postcard and a book on flower arrangement as his references for Mt. Fuji and Flowers, the introductory work to this review. 

Amazingly, Hockney painted Mt. Fuji and Flowers with acrylics, rather than oil paints. Considering the delicacy of brushstroke and the subtle, ethereal feel to this work, a treasure of the Metropolitan's collection, one would be forgiven for assuming the opposite.

Looking at Mt. Fuji and Flowers produces an elegiac feeling. Was Hockney bidding farewell to the sunlit skies and shimmering blue water of his 1960's California pictures? It is had to escape the feeling that this was so.

Following Mt. Fuji and Flowers, Hockney embarked on an ambitious, almost obsessed exploration of every conceivable form of painting, photography and related technology, including the iPad, which Hockney uses as a sketchbook. This search, which continues to the present day, was less about finding a signature style than to reach beyond the existing boundaries of the visual arts, while remaining rooted in the world.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017)
 Detail of David Hockney’s Pearblossom Hwy, 11th-18th April 1986

The Met exhibition has notable examples of Hockney's explorations, notably the magnificent photo collage, Pearblossom Hwy, 11th-18th April 1986, #1, and a fabulous selection of portrait sketches, including Celia in a Black Dress with White Flowers (1972).

David Hockney, Celia in a Black Dress with White Flowers (1972)

Pearblossom Hwy. is without a doubt one of the most innovative landscapes of recent times. The crayon portrait of Hockney's friend Celia Birtwell was later used as the exhibit illustration for a display of Hockney's drawings and prints at the Tate Gallery. It can hold its own with the sketches of Ingres. Hockney is truly a living master of art. 

Hockney also has a great sense of humor. In his interviews with Martin Gayford, Hockney mentioned that one of his favorite films is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the partly animated movie released in 1988. 

David Hockney, Large Interior, Los Angeles (1988)

The same year, Hockney painted a "cartoonscape" of his own. Large Interior, Los Angeles, presents an ensemble cast of anthropomorphic furniture inhabiting an M.C. Escher-like family room. Each chair or sofa has taken on the personality of whoever had been sitting there. It is a very amusing work, but the really amazing thing about it is how "real" it seems. Once you suspend judgement - as you do when you are watching a talking rabbit in a film noir setting - this is a totally believable work of art.    

From this diverse repertoire, Hockney moved on to his present oeuvre, large format landscapes. These are painted directly from nature, but on several panels simultaneously. Hockney uses digital photos to keep track of his work, as he goes along. There is a parallel here with his cogently argued claims that Vermeer and other great masters from the seventeenth century used a camera obscura or some other lens apparatus to aid their work. 

If that is so, then Hockney is in good company. But Vermeer's artistry and Hockney's is primarily the product of the good hand, eye and heart that the Chinese sages extolled so long ago.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) 
David Hockney’s A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March, 2006

Hand, eye and heart are clearly in evidence in the depiction of one of Hockney's favorite Yorkshire scenes, a tree-line track he calls the "Tunnel." I was struck by his generosity of spirit. as well as his skill. Looking at the way he presents his beloved landscape, from the spot where he stood to paint it, we are enabled to see and feel for ourselves what Hockney's sees and feels.

That is no small distinction. Hockney's hand, eye and heart bids us to appreciate this landscape with our eye and our heart. And then, so moved, we are motivated to create something beautiful or meaningful with our hands.

What a gift to the world, David Hockney has made of his life work and his life story! And there are more chapters yet to come! Of that, I am sure.                                                                                                                             
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          David Hockney (British, 1937­ – ) Mount Fuji and Flowers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas: 60 × 48 in. (152.4 × 121.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mrs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger Gift, 1972. 1972.128                                        

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) David Hockney at the Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 20, 2017. Digital photo, 2017.    

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of David Hockney's Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style, 1961. Oil on canvas: 91 9/16 × 32 11/16 × 1 1/2 in. (232.5 × 83 × 3.8 cm) Tate, Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund, 1996 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of David Hockney's Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians, 1965. Acrylic on canvas: 66 15/16 in. × 8 ft. 3 1/2 in. (170 × 252.8 cm) Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of David Hockney's Self Portrait 30th Sept.1983 (Detail), 1983. Charcoal on paper: 30 3/16 × 22 3/8 in. (76.6 × 56.9 cm) National Portrait Gallery, London Given by David Hockney, 1999

David Hockney (British, 1937­ – ) A Bigger Splash, 1967. Acrylic on canvas: 95 1/2 × 96 × 1 3/16 in. (242.5 × 243.9 × 3 cm) Tate, purchased 1981 © David Hockney, Photo Credit: ©Tate, London 2017

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Acrylic on canvas: 84 1/4 in. × 9 ft. 1/4 in. (214 × 275 cm) The Lewis Collection © David Hockney, Photo Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales / Jenni Carter

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of David Hockney's Pearblossom Hwy.,11-18th April 1986, #1 (Detail), 1986. Chromogenic print: 50 3/8 × 67 5/8 in. (128 × 171.8 cm)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of David Hockney, 97.XM.44

David Hockney (British, 1937­ – ) Celia in a Black Dress with White Flowers, 1972. Crayon on paper: 16 15/16 × 14 in. (43 × 35.5 cm) Collection of Victor Constantiner, New York. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

David Hockney (British, 1937­ – ) Large Interior, Los Angeles1988. Oil, ink on cut-and-pasted paper, on canvas: 72 1/4 in. × 10 ft. 1/4 in. (183.5 × 305.4 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Natasha Gelman Gift, in honor of
William S. Lieberman, 1989 (1989.279) © David Hockney  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of David Hockney's A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March, 2006. Oil on canvas. Six canvases: 37 1/2 in. × 50 in. × 1 9/16 in. (95.3 × 127 × 4 cm) each. Art Gallery New South Wales, Sydney Purchased with funds provided by Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth, the Florence and William Crosby Bequest

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Modern Art in Detail by Susie Hodge

Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces

by Susie Hodge

Thames & Hudson/336 pages/$39.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Works of art are frequently the objects of disagreement and controversy. In 1927, a polished bronze sculpture, entitled Bird in Space, achieved the status of Exhibit A in a celebrated legal case, Brancusi vs. the United States.

Bird in Space, or rather a marble version of the notorious bronze, also features prominently in a new book, Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces. As the title of her book proclaims, author Susie Hodge considers Brancusi's abstract depiction of a soaring bird a great work of art.  

Officers of the U.S. Customs in 1926 saw Bird in Space quiet differently. Or rather, they were unclear of what it was. When the wingless metal object was first brought into the United States, Customs Officers designated it as a "miscellaneous household good." The owner of Bird in Space, the noted photographer Edward Steichen, was thereby liable for the payment of a tariff duty of $240. Had it been listed as an “original” work of art, Bird in Space would have been allowed into the country duty free.

Steichen and Brancusi refused to accept the Customs Department ruling and filed suit.

The ensuing court case established the artistic status of Bird in Space beyond a doubt.  Had it been available, Hodge's enlightening analysis would have saved U.S. officialdom a lot of trouble. Yet, nearly a century later, we still need a book like Modern Art in Detail because controversy and avant-garde art still go along, "hand in hand."

Art in Detail by Susie Hodge (Thames & Hudson, 2016)

Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces is a worthy successor to Hodge's Art in Detail: 100  Masterpieces. Published in 2016, Art in Detail covered the wide expanse of art history beginning with Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes (1305) and extending to the present era.  Modern Art in Detail profiles some of the artists who appeared in the final chapters of the earlier book. But Hodge picks a new art work to be examined for those returning masters - Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Rene Magritte - so there is no repetition.

Hodge does repeat the same format used in Modern Art in Detail. Each artist is represented by a significant work of art, which is treated to incisive analysis, both for its topic and artistic technique. 

Hodge begins each chapter with a brief biographical essay of the artist in question, positioned next to a full-page (sometimes larger) illustration of their signature works of art. Despite the brevity of these bio sketches, Hodge manages to provide revealing details of the lives of these artists that explain much about their art.

Then, in the following pages, this work of art is divided into a number of framed "points of interest." Hodge focuses upon these, noting key factors ranging from contemporary events which influenced the artist to the choice of colors or materials used to create this masterpiece.

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897-98 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston     

Hodge's technique is exemplified by her analysis of Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We?  Where Are We Going? One of the treasures of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, this late Gauguin masterpiece was painted upon a rough piece of sackcloth. This, as Hodge notes, was all Gauguin could afford, living destitute in Tahiti.

Where Are We Going? needs to be read from right to left. Its theme is much more profound than a rejection of Western morality for a return to a natural lifestyle. This is a painting which charts the journey of life, in this world and beyond.

Paul Gauguin, Detail of Where Do We Come From?, 1897-98 

The ages of the women posed in the foreground of the painting represent the stages of life, from birth to the brink of death. The black and white dog entering the picture from the extreme right is believed to symbolize Gauguin.

Paul Gauguin, Detail of Where Do We Come From?, 1897-98

Hodge in her analysis of the striking blue idol points out that Gauguin positioned a goat and a cat near to the statue. These animals are believed to have a "sixth sense or a spirituality that humans have lost." 

Paul Gauguin, Detail of Where Do We Come From?, 1897-98

In the left-hand corner of the painting reads the three questions of the work's title, profound, mysterious and unanswerable. 

This insightful treatment of Gauguin's painting is repeated for each of the other seventy-four modern masterpieces. Whether you have seen these works in person or only on the pages of art books, Hodge always provides insightful commentary.

Paul Cézanne, Monte Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04
Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the case of of Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted a few years after Where Are We Going?, Hodge pays close attention to Cezanne's brushstrokes. She notes that these "angled marks are methodical and rhythmic."  We can literally see Cezanne's focus "on the underlying structure  of the elements" of this pivotal work, setting the stage for Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris and other artists who would launch the Cubist Revolution. 

All of these Cubist masters receive their due in Hodge's book. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painted in 1907, receives a thorough examination, as does Braque's The Portuguese. With these innovatory masterpieces, Cubism seemed poised to become the new "classicism" of Western art. But that of course did not happen. No school of art, no "ism" would define - or confine - Modernism into a single orthodoxy.

That one standard of ideology did not prevale was not for lack of trying. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, iconoclastic artists like Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin tried - and failed - to institute a new aesthetic order for Soviet Russia. 

Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International,1919-20

Tatlin's Monument to the Third International was never built but served as a  model for starry-eyed nonsense like Lincoln Steffens' remark, "I have seen the future, and it works."

One can only be relieved that this Babel-scaled edifice was never constructed. Designed to be taller than the Eiffel Tower, with rotating rooms and a searchlight for beaming Communist slogans on to clouds above, this monstrosity would likely have collapsed, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Today, Tatlin's prototype exists only in a model in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Tatlin subscribed to an ideological agenda called "Constructivism." It was but one of many artistic "brave new worlds" which came and went during the early decades of the twentieth century. Realism, pronounced dead or dying, somehow survived. In the hands of a true master like Edward Hopper, the existential meltdown of modern man was depicted with an intensity that even a Surrealist work by Salvador Dali could not match.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
Art Institute of Chicago

Hopper's Nighthawks are separated from the darkened urban street by the plate glass window and the glow of fluorescent light. But inside the diner, within the seeming safety of the restaurant, each of the nocturnal wayfarers is locked in an invisible prison with walls composed of alienation, separation and despair.

Flash forward from 1942 to 1968. The walls of galvanized steel of Eva Hesse's Accession II replace the barriers of glass, glaring light and repressed emotion of Hopper's Nighthawks. Thousands of strands of thin rubber tubes bristle from within the metal box.The meaning of this enigmatic work, like so much of the art produced following World War II, is anyone's guess.

We have to think "inside the box" to find our answer. But what clues are there to guide us? This could be an inner sanctum, a padded cell or a Black Hole. Usually, Hesse's work is given a feminist interpretation. Hodge notes that Accession II "references the 'masculine' - the rigid geometric box and the 'feminine' - the flexible, soft tubing." 

Eva Hesse, Accession II, 1968
Detroit Institute of Arts

Hodge's explanation, while certainly plausible, is curiously limiting. Looking at this mystifying image, I recalled that Hesse created Accession II in the same year as Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Like the black monoliths that appear at different intervals in 2001, Accession II confronts us with the ideal of potential and possibility. It is a treasure for the future, a "miscellaneous household good" whose form and functions we have yet to fully comprehend.

Eva Hesse (1936-70) was an innovator in the way that she used "odds and ends" to create compelling, if difficult to comprehend, works of art. The legacy of her tragically short life and career, however, is mixed. Frankly, I find it difficult to accord the status of masterpiece to some of the "mixed media" works that have appeared in the years following Hesse's early death at the age of 34, from cancer. 

Is a stack of smashed TV sets like Nam June Paik's TV Cello (1971) a true work or art? Does a pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), turn a dead Tiger Shark suspended in formaldehyde into a masterpiece? Can great art be "assembled" rather than created?

Hodge cannot be faulted in her analysis of these controversial works. And she certainly has the right to select art works that she deems as masterpieces for her book.

However,the failure to include classic works of photography among Hodge's array of masterpieces seems an unaccountable omission. Modern Art in Detail would have been enriched by the presence of Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz (1907) or Henri Cartier-Bresson's vertigo-inducing photo of a boy riding a bicycle through the winding street of a French town, Hyères, France (1932).

More to the point, analysis of such classic photos would have provided a foundation for understanding Bill Viola's provocative video, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), one of the final works studied in Modern Art in Detail.

Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014
Tate Gallery, on loan to St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Viola's Martyrs is a searing indictment of humankind's inhumanity. It certainly deserves inclusion in Hodge's book. Yet, for all of its power, this video is artificial. It is a simulation rather than an act of creation or documentation.

Nick Ut's photo, Napalm Girl, comes immediately to mind when considering photography as a visceral rather than a virtual art form. This horrifying image of a Vietnamese child, Kim Phuc, set on fire by an incendiary bomb in 1972, deserves the status of masterpiece. It deserves to be studied in detail. It needs to be remembered, so that art does not decline into the production of glorified "selfies" and little else.

That is a heavy and perhaps unfair burden to place on Susie Hodge. After all, she has provided art lovers with two thoughtful books, Art in Detail and Modern Art in Detail. 

May we hope for a third book in Hodge's well-tried format, Classic Photography in Detail?Such a book would complement her already published volumes and create a trilogy of art books destined to enlighten and challenge art lovers for a long time to come.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson.  Close-up images of Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Introductory Image: Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces, 2017 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-98. Oil on canvas. 139 x 374.5 cm (54 ¾ x 147 ½ in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA        

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) Monte Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04. Oil on canvas. 73 x 92 cm (28 ¾ x 36 ⅛ in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, USA

Vladimir Tatlin (Russian, 1885-1953) Monument to the Third International,1919-20. Model Wood, iron, and glass. 420 x 300 x 80 cm (165 ⅜ x 118 ⅛ x 31 ½ in.) Sovfoto/ UIG via Getty images

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967) Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas. 84 x 152.5 cm (33 ⅛ x 60 in.) Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, USA/Friends of American Art Collection/ Bridgeman images

Eve Hesse (American, 1936-70) Accession II, 1968. Galvanized steel and vinyl. 78 x 78 x 78 cm (30 ¾ x 30 ¾ x 30 ¾ in.)  Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA. © The Estate of Eva Hesse Courtesy Hauser & Wirth  Detroit Institute of Arts, USA/ Bridgeman Images

Bill Viola (American, 1951- ) Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014. Color high-definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays,, 7:15 minutes. Executive producer: Kira Perov. Performers: Norman Scott, Sarah Steben, Darrow Igus, John Hay. On loan to St Paul’s Cathedral, London, UK.  Gift to Tate by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, with support from donors. © Bill Viola Photo: Peter Mallet, courtesy Blain|Southern, London

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer joins a long list of landmark exhibitions at Metropolitan Museum of Art. These exhibits do far more than just present great works of art for us to enjoy.  New insights, sometimes revolutionary in their implications, emerge from the Met exhibitions.

Many of these exhibits, like Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, appeared in the Tisch Galleries on the second floor of the Met. I have been privileged to see quite of few of them over the years and to review the more recent ones in Art Eyewitness.

To name but a few: Byzantium: Faith and Power (2004), Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (2013) and Ancient Egypt Transformed: The MIddle Kingdom (2015). These brilliant exhibits transformed the Tisch Galleries into portals to the past and to the living essence of art. 

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer does no less.  However, the exhibit curator, Dr. Carmen Bambach, faced a seemingly impossible obstacle which her colleagues generally do not encounter. Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces do not travel.

David, "Il Gigante," cannot be loaned to museums like the Metropolitan. Nor can The Pieta - though it was sent over from the Vatican for the 1964 New York World's Fair.To view the statue, art lovers stood on a conveyor-belt like the moving walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. That permitted about a 45 second look at The Pieta.

With Michelangelo's "greatest hits" off-limits, Dr. Bambach focused on what was available. In an epic eight year quest, she secured the loan of several smaller sculptures, a very good copy of The Last Judgement, much reduced in scale, a splendid selection of Michelangelo's drawings and a number of contrasting art works by other Renaissance artists.Two hundred pieces of art are on view, the greatest number of works by Michelangelo ever presented in a single exhibition.

Michelangelo, Three Labours of Hercules, 1530–33
Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2017

With these drawings - and a "special effects" masterstroke - Dr. Bambach has curated a comprehensive and readily comprehensible introduction to the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).

Michelangelo is known to have burned many of his drawings toward the end of his life and was only prevented from destroying more by the art historian, Giorgio Vasari. But the great Florentine would have approved of an exhibition which emphasizes the importance of disegno or drawing. Disegno was the foundation of Michelangelo's art and life.

“Draw Antonio," Michelangelo wrote to his studio assistant, Antonia Mini. "Draw and don't waste time.” 

Mini did not waste any time selling the trove of drawings that Michelangelo had given him to inspire his practice of disegno. Deeply in debt, Mini sold the drawings, ironically insuring that they would survive to bear witness to Michelangelo's rise to greatness.

Michelangelo learned the basics of art in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448/49–1494). Several of Ghirlandaio's sketches are on view in the opening gallery, along with early efforts by Michelangelo. Ghirlandaio was a master of the fresco technique in painting and the main thrust of his desegno was to prepare the images to be painted in his frescoes.

Michelangelo must have profited by working with Ghirlandaio but he claimed to have taught himself art.There is some truth to that claim as Michelangelo's drawings have a sustained power and insight that Ghirlandaio's seldom match. 

Michelangelo, Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, 1532

Michelangelo's Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, created in black chalk in 1532, is one of the finest Renaissance character studies, matching the best of Hans Holbein's similar works. 

After a bit more than a year,1488-89, Michelangelo left Ghirlandaio's studio to survey the art collection of Lorenzo da Medici. Il Magnifico had created a sculpture garden at the Medici palace in Florence. Michelangelo was permitted to sketch the antiquities and then try his hand at sculpture.
In a famous encounter, Lorenzo da Medici commented favorably on the small sculpture of an aged satyr that Michelangelo had made. He noted, with wry humor, that the mythological creature would not likely have had a full set of teeth, as Michelangelo had depicted. The thirteen-year-old artist took a file and chipped away one of the satyr's teeth. Il Magnifico was so impressed that he invited Michelangelo to join his court.

Michelangelo's apprenticeship was over.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Michelangelo’s Study of Adam & Eve after Masaccio

The young Michelangelo also spent a lot of time in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, sketching the frescoes created by the tragically short-lived Masaccio (1401-1428). Michelangelo's copy in red chalk of Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden adheres closely to Masaccio but we can glimpse the beginnings of his version of this fabled event, immortalized on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Lorenzo da Medici died in 1492 and within a few, short years, the searing drama of Masaccio's fresco was repeated in the lives of countless people in Italy, including Michelangelo. The French invasion of 1494 and the wave of puritanical religious fervor under Savanorola led to the fall of the Medici. The fragile political framework of the Italian city-states, especially Florence, never recovered, though the cultural awakening of the  Renaissance continued. 

Michelangelo found himself without a patron, a refugee from the lost Medici paradise. He  sought work first in Bologna and then in Rome under the revived power of the Papacy. 
Michelangelo  took with him an impressive portfolio of artistic skills. But his years with the Medici gifted him with a philosophical treasure of equal value: the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). 

Pico's teaching emphasized human dignity, the ability of individuals to shape their own destiny and the ideal of perfection as goal. Human beings could thus worship their Divine Creator with deeds, as well as prayers.

Michelangelo, Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530's

Michelangelo's The Dreamfrom the collection of the Courtauld Gallery in London, illustrates Pico's philosophy in action. A young man, perfect in bodily form, listens to the word of God, transmitted by an angelic trumpeter. The young man grasps the globe, while behind him rages scenes of cruelty, violence, lust and greed.

The symbolism in The Dream invites speculation and interpretation. Some commentators believe that the idealized youth is grappling with melancholy, as well as resisting temptation. The drawing was created in the early 1530's, following the terrible Sack of Rome in 1527 by the mercenary troops of Emperor Charles V.  It was certainly a depressing period in Italian history.

The Dream was probably part of a group of presentation drawings which Michelangelo made as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. A young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri was also the recipient of Michelangelo's passionate friendship. Quaratesi likely was, as well. 

Michelangelo's homoerotic yearnings for these young nobles is quite evident. Yet the degree to which this passion was physically pursued will never be known. Michelangelo's private life, extremely limited by his obsessive work ethic, left him little time for self-indulgence. 

Michelangelo was a devout Christian and during his later years was a member of the religious circle inspired by the reform-minded poet, Vittoria Collona. Michelangelo was a close friend of Collona, for whom he created a powerful depiction of the Pieta, very different from the famous statue he had carved decades before.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Michelangelo's Pieta, ca. 1540 

Throughout his life, Michelangelo labored to create visual images testifying to the glory of God. This was done  chiefly through depictions of the male nude, including those of the dead Christ in his mother's arms. For Michelangelo, the youthful male body represented the epitome of God's creative handiwork.

This was such a far-reaching ideal that Michelangelo extended it to the way he portrayed women. A number of cultural historians, including Camille Paglia in her book, Sexual Personae, maintain that Michelangelo used male models for female characters in his paintings. Looking on his painted panel of the Holy Family called the Doni Tondo, the lithe, athletic body of the Virgin Mary certainly lends weight to that argument.

The Doni Tondo is not in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition but confirmation of this theory can be found in one of the the Met's own treasures, Michelangelo's Studies for the Libyan Sibyl which he painted on the Sistine Ceiling. The rippling arm muscles, the broad shoulders and ramrod straight spinal column are matched by the strength of character of the Libyan Sibyl's face. 

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, c.1510–11

It should not it be forgotten that the finished version of the Libyan Sibyl is holding a massive volume, a Wisdom Book. The Libyan Sibyl represents the incarnation of mind/body perfection possible to a person, male or female, who is devoted to God's truth.

The incomparable physique of the Libyan Sibyl sketch is also evident in a preparatory study made around 1504 for the famous, now lost, cartoon for the Battle of Cascina fresco. Looking at Male Back with a Flag, one is struck by the obvious fact that Michelangelo retained much of his sculptor's technique even when he sketched and painted.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Michelangelo's Male Back with a Flag, c. 1504. 

That was especially true of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Unlike the Battle of Cascina, the cosmic drama of the Book of Genesis was carried through to completion. With skill and audacity to match Michelangelo, the Metropolitan has replicated the fabled Sistine Chapel ceiling with a lighted photo version above the Tisch galleries. The scale, though reduced, approximates the experience of looking at the original in Rome.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer

The effect of being able to study Michelangelo's studies for the figures of the Sistine ceiling and then to look above you at the wondrous copy is enlightening in a way that no close study of the many fine books dealing with the Sistine frescoes can ever be. 

The sheer brilliance of the Metropolitan exhibit enables you to look at the original study for the Cumaean Sybyl, check it against the dazzling overhead display and thus progressively see how the image was incorporated into the whole design of the Sistine Chapel fresco.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michelangelo' s Study of the Cumaean Sibyl (top),
followed by details of Metropolitan Museum reproductions of the Cumaean Sibyl

Even straining your neck to look at the original in the Vatican does not allow you to do that. My wife, Anne, an accomplished artist herself, described the effect. 

"I finally get the Sistine Chapel," Anne said. 

The sensational impact of the re-imagined Sistine Chapel is reinforced by the presence of a sculpture group in the very next gallery. To see a Michelangelo statute in the United States is a rare treat. There are two in this group, along with contrasting portrait busts, one from ancient Rome and another of Julius Caesar by Andrea Ferrucci (1465-1526). 

.Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit, Michelangelo's David/Apollo at left.

The standing sculpture, David/Apollo, begun around 1530, was never completed by the overworked Michelangelo. As a result, this non-finito work is impossible to identify as either David or Apollo. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit, Michelangelo's Brutus at center.

That's not case with the bust of Brutus. Sculpted in 1539, Brutus exerts a living presence. Here unquestionably is the portrait of a noble Roman. This forceful evocation of Caesar's assassin also points to the power-politics of Michelangelo's era.

Michelangelo was a supporter of the Republic of Florence, which had been suppressed by one of the Medici successors to Lorenzo the Magnificent. This was the brutal Duke Alessandro, assassinated in 1537 by his cousin, Lorenzino da Medici. Lorenzino was motivated by Republican sentiments similar to Michelangelo's. Alessandro's death, alas, did not lead to the restoration of the Florentine Republic. Michelangelo may have left his bust of Brutus unfinished in silent protest to the passing of Florence's republican tradition.

It is incredible to think that when Michelangelo stopped working on Brutus in 1539, he had a quarter of a century of life before him. Could he not have finished the bust of Brutus?

The obvious answer to this question is provided by the Metropolitan exhibit which cogently outlines his later epic works: the Last Judgment fresco and the architectural design of the basilica of St. Peter's. Michelangelo might cease working on a statue like Brutus but he never stopped working.

There is another reason, I believe, that many of the statues from his later years remained non-finito. Michelangelo was motivated by spiritual impulses that compelled him to work to the point that Spirit, God's spirit, was satisfied and then to move on. It was a case of God's will be done rather than Michelangelo's.

Michelangelo composed a beautiful poem, a madrigal, around 1534. These verses, translated by the great Renaissance scholar, Creighton Gilbert, confirm that Michelangelo certainly believed that he was obeying God's will.

Beautiful things are the longing of my eyes,                                                                  Just as it is my soul’s to be secure,                                                                                  But they’ve no other power                                                                                              That lifts to Heaven, but staring at all those.                                                                    A shining glory falls                                                                                                          From furthest stars above,                                                                                              Toward them our wish it pulls,                                                                                        And here we call it love.                                                                                                Kind heart can never have,                                                                                                To enamor and fire it, and to counsel,                                                                            More than a face with eyes that they resemble.

If my interpretation of this madrigal is correct, Michelangelo believed that God's face, with eyes that resemble stars, watched over his creative achievements. It was not Michelangelo's "kind heart" but heavenly inspiration that impelled him to attempt and to achieve the impossible.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) The Metropolitan Museum reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with Michelangelo's Creation of Adam at center. 

Any person fortunate to visit Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan is likely come to the same conclusion. The evidence is overwhelming.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved    

Madrigal by Michelangelo Buonarroti, c.1534. Translated by Creighton Gilbert in Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo, Princeton University Press, 1980, first edition published by Random House, 1963.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Daniele da Volterra's Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti, ca. 1544, oil on wood, 34 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (88.3 x 64.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Three Labours of Hercules, 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 in. (27.2 x 42.2 cm) ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017,

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, 1532.
Drawing, black chalk; 16 3/16 x 11 ½ in. (41.1 x 29.2 cm) The British Museum, London

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of Michelangelo’s Study of Adam and Eve after The Expulsion from Paradise fresco by Masaccio, c. 1503-04. Red chalk. Musée du Louvre, Department des arts Graphiques, Paris (3897 recto)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530's. Black chalk. Sheet: 15 5/16 × 10 15/16 in. (38.9 × 27.8 cm) Sheet: 15 5/16 × 10 15/16 in. (38.9 × 27.8 cm) London, Courtauld Gallery, Prince Gate Bequest (1978) inv. D 1978.PG.424

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Michelangelo's Pieta, ca. 1540, Black chalk,  28.9 x 18.9 cm (11 3/8 x 7 7/16 in. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 1.2.o.16

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian,1475–1564) Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto), Ca. 1510–11. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. Sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924. 24.197.2

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Michelangelo's Male Back with a Flag, c. 1504.  Albertina, Vienna.123v

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michelangelo' s Study of the Cumaean Sibyl and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's reproductions of the Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing Michelangelo's David/Apollo (C. 1530) and Brutus (1539), Marble Portrait of Emperor of Caracalla, Third Century A.D., and Andrea Ferrucci's Julius Caesar (c.1512-14) 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michelangelo's Brutus, center.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, showing the Metropolitan Museum reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with Michelanglo's Creation of Adam at center.