Monday, July 29, 2013

El Greco at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first major retrospective in more than 20 years devoted to the great 16th-century painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) – known to posterity as El Greco – opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 7, 2003. One of the most original artists of his age, El Greco was celebrated for his highly expressive and visionary religious paintings. The international loan exhibition's approximately 80 works included an unsurpassed selection of his psychologically compelling portraits, as well as his rare incursions into landscape, genre, mythology, and sculpture. Particular emphasis was placed on his late works, in which mystical content, expressive distortions, and monumental scale are taken to ever greater extremes, culminating in the Adoration of Shepherds, the spectacular nine-foot-tall painting created to decorate his own tomb.

All aspects of the artist's activity were explored, from his beginnings as an icon painter in his native Crete, to his move to Venice and Rome and his study of Italian art, to his definitive move to Toledo, Spain, and his creation of a uniquely personal and deeply spiritual style. His work has sometimes been associated with the great mystics of Counter-Reformation Spain, but his paintings have had a profound influence on the protagonists of 20th-century modernism, including Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. El Greco remained on view at the Metropolitan through January 11, 2004.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The National Gallery, London.

"In his own time," stated Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, "El Greco's highly personal style – with its dematerialization of the figure and its expressive effects of light and color – was without precedent and often astonished his contemporaries. Yet it is only in the last 150 years that he has come to be appreciated as one of the great creative geniuses of Western art. This landmark gathering of his works, which has been organized by an international team of scholars, builds on the last major El Greco exhibition of 1982 with a greater focus on the artist's late and most mystical phase, and the philosophical and religious thought that informed it."

A unique synthesis of late medieval Byzantine traditions and the art of the Italian Renaissance, El Greco's art sought to create a new and spiritually more intense relationship between viewer and image. Although he established a large and productive workshop in Toledo, he founded no school, and for almost two centuries following his death his works were decried for their extravagance—except for his astonishing portraits, which Velazquez took as his model. A sympathetic interest in his art was the product of the 19th-century Romantic movement's new emphasis on individual expression and extremes of emotion. Since then El Greco's creative stature has never been challenged. Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin saw themselves as his artistic heirs. More recently, his works have inspired the expressive abstractions of generations of 20th-century painters. The 1982 exhibition of his works was seen in Madrid, Washington, Toledo, Ohio, and Dallas.

The Dormition of the Virgin (Syros, Church of the Dormition)

and St. Luke Painting the Virgin (Athens, Benaki Museum)

were among the rare, early works documenting El Greco's first training as a painter of religious icons in his birthplace of Crete. The archaizing abstractions of these images – based on late medieval prototypes – reflect his country's continuing reverence for the Byzantine traditions of its Greek heritage.

The style and sacred function of Byzantine icons, which rejected mimesis in favor of an attempt to mystically embody the living presence of the divine, greatly shaped El Greco's approach to religious art. Throughout his career, he always signed his works with his Greek name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

A number of key works illustrated the transforming effects of El Greco's stay in Italy, beginning with his arrival in Venice, in 1567, and his subsequent stay in Rome, from 1570 until 1577.

Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (ca. 1570, Minneapolis Institute of Arts),

with its deep, stage-like space, bold brushwork, and dramatic lighting, shows the powerful influence of Titian as well as the Venetian mannerist Tintoretto. During the Counter Reformation the theme, reprised several times by El Greco, was interpreted as the purification of the Church.

Works from the artist's sojourn in Rome display El Greco's study of the art of Michelangelo and his awareness of Italian art theory. He became a member of a small circle of antiquarians.

The Boy Lighting a Candle (Museo Nazionale di Capodimente, Naples)

is a rare and charming example of El Greco's excursion into genre painting as well as an emulation of a celebrated lost work of ancient art.

In 1577 El Greco traveled to Spain, where he hoped to find royal patronage – unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Instead, he settled permanently in Toledo, still an intellectual and religious center of the country. Once again, he found his place among a circle of scholars and church reformers who appreciated his signature style, with its elongated, undulating forms and sometimes dissonant colors.

The Adoration of the Name of Jesus

was among the first works painted by El Greco in Spain – perhaps an attempt to attract the attention of Philip II, who is shown kneeling in the foreground. The artist painted two versions of this religious allegory, which were shown together for the first time. Although the larger of the two versions found a place in Philip II's grandiose palace, the Escorial, El Greco did not become one of the king's artists.

The increasingly ethereal and otherworldly quality of his religious works can be traced in a series of important canvases from the 1580s and 1590s, including

Christ on the Cross Adored by Donors (ca. 1585-90, Musée du Louvre, Paris);

The Agony in the Garden (The Toledo Museum of Art);

Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes and Saint Martin and the Beggar (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.);

and The Resurrection (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

In the Resurrection (ca. 1597-1604, Museo del Prado), one of El Greco's most celebrated works, expressive distortion and mystical drama are taken to unprecedented extremes. Emerging from the tomb with an almost explosive force, Christ acts as a magnet, pulling the figures below, drawn out to impossible lengths, heavenward.

El Greco's artistic explorations of spirituality and mysticism culminate in

Adoration of the Shepherds (1614, Museo del Prado),

designed to hang above the artist's tomb. Here, the body of the infant Christ, tiny on the ten-foot-tall canvas, emits an incandescent glow that illuminates the entire composition. Heavenly as well as earthly worshippers appear to be weightless, slowly spiraling in adoration around his form. The painting is an unrivaled example of El Greco's visual expression of ecstatic union with the divine.

The exhibition also brought together El Greco's finest portraits, notable for their probing explorations of character and psychological intensity. Among the most famous example is the

Portrait of a Cardinal, probably Don Fernando Niño de Guevara (ca. 1600, The Metropolitan Museum of Art),

whose piercing gaze suggest the stern rectitude with which he carried out his duties.

The exhibition also included El Greco's compelling portrayal of the young cleric

Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino (1609, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

A noted poet and professor of rhetoric, he was one of El Greco's admirers in Toledo and dedicated four poems to the artist.

Rare examples of El Greco's activities as a landscape painter included his famous

View of Toledo (1600-10, The Metropolitan Museum of Art),

sometimes considered the first expressionist landscape in Western art.

Also on view was

The Laocoön (ca. 1600-10, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.),

a late work in which El Greco openly vied with the celebrated first-century sculpture in the Vatican signed by Hagesandros, Polydoros and Athenodoros of Rhodes. The subject, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, concerns the gods' punishment of the Trojan priest Laocoön in front of the walls of Troy, which El Greco shows as Toledo. The writhing forms and expressions of despair and physical pain make it one of his most powerful works.

Following its showing at the Metropolitan, El Greco was on view at The National Gallery, London, from February 11 through May 23, 2004.

The guest curator of the exhibition was Professor David Davies, a noted El Greco scholar. He has been assisted by Gabriele Finaldi, formerly of The National Gallery, London, and then associate director of the Museo del Prado, Madrid; Xavier Bray, assistant curator at The National Gallery, London; and Keith Christiansen, Jayne Wrightsman Curator in the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.

El Greco was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, authored by a team of international scholars, including: Professor Davies; Sir John Elliott, Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Oxford; Gabriele Finaldi; Keith Christiansen; and Xavier Bray. The catalogue was published by The National Gallery, London, and distributed by Yale University Press.

More images:

The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek, Iráklion (Candia) 1540/41–1614 Toledo)

Philip Guston Retrospective

The American painter Philip Guston (American, b. Canada, 1913-1980) was the subject of a major retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 27, 2003, through January 4, 2004. The exhibition included more than 75 paintings and drawings dating from 1930, when he was 17, to 1980, the year of his death.

Beginning with his childhood fascination with popular American comic strips, through mural painting laden with political imagery, to easel painting and a burgeoning interest in, advancement of, and ultimate disenchantment with abstraction and Abstract Expressionism, through his invention of a highly controversial figurative mode of painting and drawing that influenced younger artists, Guston courageously changed styles according to his beliefs and in response to social and political issues of the day.

The exhibition was organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas.

Philip Guston
explored the stages of this precocious and highly energetic artist's career, featuring key works drawn from around the United States, the United Kingdom, and rarely seen paintings from Australia.

Highlights included

the Drawing for Conspirators (1930)

—the artist's first reaction to the cruelties of the Ku Klux Klan,

the tondo Bombardment (1937-38)

and The Tormentors (1947-48),

which, together with

White Painting (1951),

documented Guston's transition from Symbolic Realism into abstraction.

Works that richly demonstrate Guston's personal interpretation of the Abstract Expressionist movement included

Painting (1954),

Zone (1953-54),

To Fellini (1958)

and other nuanced abstractions.

Following a group of transitional drawings and paintings of the 1960s,

Edge of Town (1969),

The Law (1969),

The Studio (1969),

and Courtroom (1970)

all incorporate Klan imagery used both to comment on political issues of the day and to represent the artist surrounded by everyday artifacts. These were first seen in Guston's controversial 1970 Marlborough Gallery exhibition in New York.

Wharf ((1976),

Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973),

the powerful battle scene The Street (1977),

and Talking (1979),

further displayed Guston's autobiographical symbolism.

Drawings and paintings included in the exhibition—most notably a painting,

San Clemente (1975), depicting Richard Nixon—will demonstrated the artist's frustration with American politics during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Painter's Table (1975) on left and San Clemente on right (1975)

Philip Guston brought a unique combination of moral intensity and probing self-reflection to his art. He was the youngest of seven children born to Jewish immigrants from Odessa in 1913 in Montreal, Canada. Guston—whose original surname was Goldstein—moved as a child with his family to Los Angeles. After witnessing his father's depression and finding him following his suicide, the young Guston retreated to a place of literal isolation—a closet illuminated by a single light bulb—and began a lifelong career in art through an intense engagement with cartoons of his own invention. The light bulb later became a prevailing image in Guston's mature work. At Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles Guston met and became a friend of Jackson Pollock.

In his early schooling, art school, and throughout his career, Guston devotedly studied the history of art. His influences were broad, ranging from the Italian Renaissance masters of the 15th century to modern European artists such as Cézanne, Léger, and Mondrian. His mural paintings of the 1930s were inspired by the great Mexican artists David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949). He was also influenced by the haunting cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, 1888-1978).

After moving to New York City in 1935, where he renewed his friendship with Pollock, Guston met and saw the work of many of his contemporaries—Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, among many others. Together they would form the center of the major American art movement that became known as Abstract Expressionism. Gradually Guston shifted from painting public murals to working privately in the studio, at an easel. At the same time, he began to accept university teaching positions that brought him to cities in the midwest. As Abstract Expressionism took root in New York City in the mid-1940s, Guston arrived slightly later at his personal version of the style. Guston's imagery of the 1950s and early 1960s is considered to be as complex and as moving as other works produced by the movement. Guston's emphasis on the brushstroke—what he saw as the most fundamental act of marking, the cornerstone of painting, the essence of an artist's uniqueness—remains one of his most enduring legacies. The brushstroke and a continuing inquiry into structure, recalling the "plus and minus" compositions of the mid-teens by Mondrian, became the chief pictorial components for Guston's Abstract Expressionism and are among his most significant contributions to the movement.

In addition to his devotion to drawing and painting, Philip Guston was also an avid reader of philosophy, fiction, and poetry and he was a writer and a charismatic educator, continuing to teach through much of his career. In 1965 he helped found the New York Studio School for Drawing and Painting. However in the 1970s, as his health began to deteriorate, Guston became increasingly withdrawn. He retreated from the New York art scene and spent most of his time at his home and studio in Woodstock, New York, where he continued the autobiographical figuration he had begun in the late 1960s. After Musa, his wife of 40 years, suffered a stroke in 1977, and after his own nearly fatal heart attack in 1979, he painted figurative works and intimate portraits. From this period,

Couple in Bed (1977),

Sleeping (1977), and a group of small acrylics from 1980 was on view in the exhibition.

While dining at the Woodstock home of Sylvia and Fred Elias (his doctor), Philip Guston suffered another heart attack and died at the age of 67.

Michael Auping, Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and curator of the exhibition, wrote in his essay in the exhibition catalogue Philip Guston Retrospective: "Significant artists are often those figures who make bold and difficult transitions throughout their career, and in that process synthesize vast territories of art history. These are artists whose works reflect not only the aspirations and anxieties of their own generation, but of those that came before and after." Auping continued: "Having helped to define the one great movement associated with American art, Abstract Expressionism, he also had the boldness and skill to carve his way out of it."

Prior to its presentation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philip Guston was on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Following its showing at the Metropolitan, the exhibition was seen at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, England, from January 24 through April 12, 2004.

A fully illustrated catalogue, Philip Guston Retrospective, published by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in association with Thames & Hudson, accompanied the exhibition. It contains essays by Michael Auping, Dore Ashton, Bill Berkson, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michael E. Shapiro, and Joseph Rishel, as well as Guston's 1965 essay "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Michelangelo: The Drawings of a Genius

From October 8, 2010, to January 9, 2011, the Albertina presented the first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to Michelangelo in more than twenty years. The presentation of more than a hundred of the artist’s most precious drawings provided fascinating insights into the creative work of this great genius. It retraced the development of his depiction of the human body, from the delicate figures drawn in beautiful lines of the early Renaissance to a new, monumental body ideal that has kept its validity down to the present day.

The drawings presented in this exhibition were from the Albertina’s own holdings as well as from thirty of the most renowned international museums and art collections, including the Uffizi and the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle, and the British Museum in London.

(Click on links for more information)

Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor, architect, painter, and graphic artist. The exhibition in the Albertina focused on his drawing oeuvre. As a medium for developing new ideas and conveying artistic thoughts, the drawing was the basis of all his creative work. In addition, it achieved a new status as an autonomous artwork under the great Florentine artist. In the seventy-five years of his artistic career, Michelangelo (1475-1564) created an extremely complex oeuvre, influencing not only his entire era but also subsequent generations of artists.

On the basis of Michelangelo’s most important commissions and groups of drawings, the exhibition in the Albertina presented his work in its proper chronological sequence, not least in order to illustrate the development of the master’s drawing oeuvre. The selection on display spanned the entire period from his earliest extant drawing (a copy after Giotto) and the drafts for The Battle of Cascina to the preliminary drawings for the famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and the subtle presentation sheets for Michelangelo’s friend Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, to the late Crucifixion depictions by the almost eighty-year-old artist. Furthermore, it featured projects the master realized while in the service of several popes and princes: the Tomb of Pope Julius II, the Medici Chapel, The Last Judgment, as well as the design for the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Complementing the selection are works by pupils and fellow artists to whom art-historical scholarship has often attributed drawings by Michelangelo in the past, although their style clearly differs from that of the great master. Finally, the exhibition included a number of paintings based on drafts by Michelangelo.

The declared objective of the exhibition was to reposition Michelangelo as a graphic artist. Following losses through the vagaries of history as well as by the artist’s own destruction of several of his works, only some 600 drawings remain today. The ongoing discussion concerning their authenticity and chronology served Dr. Achim Gnann, the curator of the exhibition, as a point of departure in conceiving this presentation over a period of about three years.

Michelangelo and His Era

Michelangelo lived in an era of armed conflict and profound change. The invention of printing from movable type, the understanding of central perspective, the discovery of America, the first circumnavigation of the world, and the adoption of a heliocentric worldview expanded the spatial and intellectual horizons of the early modern age. The autonomy of the individual and his capacity for critical thought and creative power were formulated as central convictions of the Renaissance. This new self-image permitted artists like Michelangelo to adopt a self-confident posture in their dealings with mighty princes. It was in this intellectual climate that Michelangelo became a sculptor, painter, draftsman, and architect. Michelangelo experienced—and influenced—the development from the early Italian Renaissance and Mannerism to the beginning of the Baroque period. He witnessed the power struggle between the Medici and the Vatican, served under nine popes, and also perceived the influence of the checkered history in his own work. On the basis of Michelangelo’s central projects, the exhibition in the Albertina retraces the development of his creative career in the context of the cultural and political events of the Renaissance.

The Human Body in the Drawings of Michelangelo

The thematic link that connects the artworks on display is the human body. In his exemplary oeuvre Michelangelo created a vocabulary of movements and postures that would serve as a reference to many subsequent generations of artists. Michelangelo replaced the delicate figural lines of artists such as Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Domenico Ghirlandaio with a new monumental ideal of the human body. He created figures of great dramatic expression, lending them monumentality and heroic power. At the same time, his works are characterized by deep inner feeling and emotional tension. The human body as aesthetic leitmotiv, which is the focus of interest in Michelangelo’s work, characterized the Renaissance period. The new conviction that the description of the body reflects the innermost emotions of the soul emerged in this era, and Michelangelo rendered the concept in a particularly impressive manner.

The Drawing—A Medium for Developing New Ideas and an Autonomous Artwork

While studying Michelangelo’s richly varied and extremely detailed drawings, we also follow the artist’s train of thought. The genre of drawing, which forms such an essential part of his oeuvre, is undoubtedly the most pure and unbroken expression of an artistic idea. In Michelangelo’s works, it is no longer merely a preliminary study; it achieves a new status as an autonomous artwork. Contemporaries of Michelangelo collected his drawings, which the artist considered primarily as material he needed for his work, and guarded them like precious gems.

Early Drawings

Michelangelo showed a keen interest in drawing even as a boy. When his father sent the thirteen year old for an apprenticeship under the important Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, the latter was immediately astounded by his pupil’s exceptional talent. The artist’s early pen-and-ink drawings are unmistakably in keeping with Ghirlandaio’s technique, yet his lines are straighter, more regular, and more controlled. The position and function of each detail is clearly defined and sculpturally translatable. In the beginning, the artist liked to combine two different colors of ink, thus loosening the line-work and lending the composition a more colorful impression. It was a common practice in the workshop training of apprentices for pupils to copy the works of great artists. Michelangelo is said to have copied various sheets by older masters in a faithful manner, before coloring, smearing, and smoking them to make them appear old. Among the earliest drawings of his youth are the three famous copies based on frescoes by Giotto

and Masaccio,

whom Michelangelo admired for their simplicity and coherent figural language. Following their example, he developed a new ideal of depicting the human figure, characterized by dignified greatness, heroic grandeur, and monumentality.

The Battle of Cascina

After the fall of the Medici and the establishment of the Republic of Florence, the government commissioned a decorative program for its seat in the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio). In a kind of artistic contest, the young Michelangelo in 1504 faced the experienced artist Leonardo da Vinci, who in 1503 had started to paint

The Battle of Anghiari (1440) against the Duchy of Milan,

while Michelangelo depicted the dramatic events of July 28, 1364, in

The Battle of Cascina. Michelangelo chose the moment between the surprise attack and the reaction of the soldiers, who rushed to arms. While Leonardo staged the dynamic clash of riders and soldiers in all its brutality and violence, Michelangelo structured his composition on three spatial levels and conceived the event as an “allegory of vigilance.” His contemporaries were immediately fascinated by his draft because of the expressive, richly varied postures and complex rotational movements of the bodies. The three-dimensional definition of the figures and the effort to make them space-encompassing was yet another achievement that had a lasting effect on subsequent generations of artists.

The Sistine Chapel

With the ascendance to the papacy of Julius II (1503), Michelangelo had secured his most important patron. In 1505 he summoned Michelangelo to Rome to build his papal tomb. When the construction of the new Saint Peter’s became an increasingly important priority for the pope, however, he commissioned the artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Disappointed at having to break off the tomb project on which he was already working, Michelangelo, who saw himself primarily as a sculptor, was initially reluctant to accept the new commission.


He independently developed his complex program of scenes from the story of the Creation and the lives of the patriarchs Moses and Noah accompanied by the biblical prophets and the ancestors of Christ combined with figures from heathen mythology.

The Tomb of Julius II

Monumental tomb study

In 1505 Julius II gave Michelangelo his first commission: to create a monumental personal tomb in the old Saint Peter’s. It was to surpass every existing tomb in size, magnificence, and the richness of its sculptural decoration, with more than 40 figures to glorify the pontiff’s political and cultural achievements. Initially conceived as a grand project, it was to be recorded in Michelangelo’s artistic biography as the “tragedy of his life.” The execution of the original plan was prevented by other papal commissions.

Wall tomb study

Following the death of Julius II in February 1513, his heirs altered the design, rejecting the free-standing, walk-in mausoleum in favor of a still-impressive but significantly smaller wall tomb. While the first draft provided for a program of classical sculpture, Christian motifs were predominant in the later designs. No use was made of the famous sculptures of the Slaves in Paris and Florence in later project phases.

The Medici Chapel

In 1519 Michelangelo received his largest commission to date: to design the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo in Florence along with its sculptural program. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici and Pope Leo X commissioned this project for constructing tombs for the most important members of the Medici family. Michelangelo based his architectural structure on Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy to which the Medici Chapel was added as a counterpart. He set new standards, however, with his completely new formal language. The three-dimensional architectural elements combine with the sculpture in harmonious unity. The artist studied individual parts of the figures in several careful drawings in order to arrive finally at the uniquely sensual gestures and introverted spiritual expressiveness. Michelangelo’s final move to Rome in 1534 as well as the death of the Medici pope at the time, Clemens VII, prevented him from ever completing this huge Gesamtkunstwerk.

Leda and the Swan

During Michelangelo’s stay in Ferrara in 1529, Duke Alfonso I d’Este presented his famous art collection to him and expressed his wish to receive a painting by the master. Upon this request, Michelangelo created a tempera painting of Leda and the Swan within a year. According to the Greek myth, Zeus admired Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta, and seduced her in the guise of a swan. The duke sent an envoy to Florence who made disparaging remarks about the painting, whereupon Michelangelo presented it as a gift to his pupil Antonio Mini. Later the painting of Leda made its way to Fontainebleau and was burned there a hundred years later because of its lascivious subject matter. The painted copies in London’s National Gallery and by Peter Paul Rubens are not based on the painting but on Michelangelo’s cartoon, which Mini took with him to France along with the painting in order to sell them both.

Presentation Drawings for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri

At the age of 57, Michelangelo met the 17-year-old Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. He was immediately smitten by the youth’s beauty, distinguished appearance, and intellect, and their meeting marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Michelangelo sent Tommaso sonnets, letters, and drawings in which he expressed his love for him. He promoted the young man’s artistic interest and taught him how to draw. The drawings that Michelangelo presented to Tommaso as gifts—

The Punishment of Tityus,

The Rape of Ganymede,

The Fall of Phaeton,

and A Children’s Bacchanal

—are executed in an extremely subtle, detailed, and accomplished manner, depicting classical, mythological subjects. In addition the master created drawings of “divine heads” (teste divine) for him, including that of Cleopatra, presented here.

The Last Judgment

With Pope Clement VII another member of the Medici dynasty entered the Vatican. His papacy was marked by the sack of Rome (1527) when the Medici were exiled from Florence, military defeat, and the advance of the Protestants. Nevertheless he was a generous patron of the arts, and Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgment for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel is the most important work commissioned during his papacy.

As he had done earlier with his ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo designed a dramatic depiction of human fate, interpreting the Last Judgment as a monumental apocalyptic vision of the thought of redemption and the terror of damnation. Here again, Michelangelo combines the biblical narrative with scenes from ancient mythology. The connection with the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy can be seen at the bottom of the fresco in the figure of Charon, the ferryman carrying the dead to the underworld. In the dynamic postures and foreshortening of the figures reaching in all directions as well as in their sculptural quality and moving, powerful expressiveness we experience the master’s visionary imagination in all its creative diversity. During this period of crisis in the church and the resulting efforts to reform it, Michelangelo made the acquaintance of the Roman poetess Vittoria Colonna, under whose influence he entered a phase of deep spirituality and religiosity in his artistry. In this spirit and as a reflection on his own mortality, Michelangelo created his late Crucifixion and Pietà scenes.

Late Crucifixion Drawings

The three poignant depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ belong to a series of stylistically related drawings on the subject. They are frequently attributed to the artist’s last creative period, although the exact date of their creation cannot be established with certainty. In these drawings Michelangelo focuses on the essential, omits decorative details, and reduces the figures to simple, block-like forms. Standing beneath the Cross are Saint John and the Mother of God. They are left entirely to their own devices in an empty space that dramatically reveals the hopelessness of their situation. They are either plainly venting their grief and desperation or recoiling in reaction to the icy-cold sensation that Christ’s death on the Cross has evoked within them. These drawings bear testimony to the deeply religious beliefs of Michelangelo, whose thoughts revolved around Christ’s death and salvation toward the end of his life.

More images here:

Artist´s biography

Michelangelo is born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese near Arezzo, where his father is mayor. His mother dies when he is six. He spends his childhood with a foster mother in Settignano. As a boy he accompanies her husband, a mason, to the nearby quarries.Michelangelo attends a Latin school in Florence. His father apprentices him at the age of twelve to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.At this time the great city-state of Florence is a cultural stronghold of Humanism but at the same time a city embattled on all sides.From 1488 to 1492 Michelangelo lives in Florence at the court of Lorenzo il Magnifico, where he studies the Medici collection of antiquities. In the mortuary of the Ospedale di Santo Spirito he studies the anatomy of the human body. In order to demonstrate his talent, he successfully presents artificially aged drawings as originals. Michelangelo’s outstanding talent for copying the frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine attracts the envy of his colleagues. Pietro Torrigiani breaks his nose, thus permanently disfiguring him. The Dominican monk Savonarola causes political unrest with his fanatical preaching against ostentation and immorality. Botticelli is among the converts, burning his pagan works and ceasing his activity as an artist. The Medici are driven from Florence, which becomes a republic in 1494. Michelangelo flees to Venice and Bologna.

In 1495 Michelangelo returns to Florence and sells one of his sculptures as a work of antiquity, having artificially aged the surface. He thus demonstrates that his art is equal to the sculpture of antiquity.Michelangelo’s father, having lost his position and faced with the lack of success of his other sons, must rely to the end of his life on Michelangelo’s support.

In Rome three years later, Michelangelo executes his celebrated Pietà for the tomb of the French Cardinal Lagraulas in Santa Petronilla (today in St. Peter’s, Rome). The emphasis on suffering found in Gothic lamentation scenes is replaced by lyric idealism. In 1501 the Florentine cathedral workshop asks the now-famous sculptor to complete work on a block of marble that had suffered under the hands of previous sculptors for several decades. For a sum three times higher than that originally offered, Michelangelo creates the David. More than four meters high, the sculpture is put on display outside the Palazzo Vecchio in 1504. In an exemplary manner, it unites the principles of the High Renaissance: knowledge of antique sculpture, the study of nature, and a balance between realism and idealism. In the same year Michelangelo accepts the challenge to compete with Leonardo da Vinci in painting the most famous battle scenes in art history on opposite walls of the Palazzo Vecchio. Michelangelo’s contemporaries enthusiastically receive his cartoon and preparatory drawings for a fresco that is never to be executed. His drafts feature figures exploring the space around them in every direction, depicted in a wide variety of postures with complicated foreshortening. Michelangelo’s new ideal of the human body is to influence generations of artists from Rubens to Delacroix.

Under Pope Julius II (1503-1513) Rome replaces Florence as the center of Renaissance art. The artloving pontiff becomes Michelangelo’s most important patron. Their fruitful collaboration, however, is complicated by the difficult relationship between the two quick-tempered men. Many of the artist’s works remain unfinished and go down in art history as “perfect torsos.” The first commission that Michelangelo receives from Julius II is for a monumental tomb in St. Peter’s. It turns into a tragedy for the artist and takes more than 40 years to complete. Disagreements with the pope lead Michelangelo to return secretly to Florence. In 1506 Michelangelo witnesses the most spectacular archeological find of his day: the Laocoön group of sculpture. Its dramatic energy influences the characteristic terribilità of his figures. Julius II hires the most important artists of the day to work at his court: Bramante designs the new St. Peter’s, Raphael paints frescoes in the private apartments of the pope (Stanze di Raffaello), and Michelangelo completes his ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel over four years (1508-1512), a legacy that is his greatest work of painting. After the violent end of the Florentine Republic (1512), the Medici return to power following an absence of more than 20 years. One year later a member of the Medici family is elevated to the papacy as Leo X (1513-1521).

In 1519 Michelangelo undertakes the sculptural and architectural design of the family tomb in the Medici Chapel and the adjoining Biblioteca Laurenziana at San Lorenzo in Florence. This large Gesamtkunstwerk also remains unfinished when Michelangelo moves to Rome in 1533. With the election in 1523 of the Medici pope Clemens VII (1523-1534) Rome hopes for the kind of cultural heyday it experienced under Julius II. Not least because of the pope’s hesitant policies and lack of willingness to reform, Rome is sacked in 1527 by German mercenaries in the hire of Emperor Charles V. The pope is driven from Rome. Florence is once again proclaimed to be a republic. Michelangelo changes sides again and accepts responsibility for the fortifications of the Florentine Republic. In Rome, Michelangelo meets the 17-year-old, Humanistically schooled Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. The older artist creates intimate sonnets and sensitive mythological drawings dedicated to the young nobleman. Their content suggests a deep platonic friendship between the two men. In 1533 Pope Clemens VII commissions Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel; eight years later the artist completes the fresco under Pope Paul III (1534-1549).

Michelangelo’s free interpretation and the nudity of the figures are considered scandalous. Some twenty years later Michelangelo’s pupil Daniele da Volterra is given the unpleasant task of painting loincloths on several of the figures. This results in the nickname “Il braghettone” (“the breeches maker”). In this period Michelangelo establishes first contacts with the Roman poetess Vittoria Colonna. Under her influence he becomes acquainted with the spiritual ambitions of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. The heartfelt Pietà and Crucifixion scenes of his later years attest to his newly internalized religious feelings.

In 1534/35 the new Farnese pope, Paul III, releases Michelangelo from the time-consuming contract for the Tomb of Julius II in order to force the artist to work for him. He puts Michelangelo in charge of all artistic matters at the Vatican. Over the next few years Michelangelo works primarily as an architect. As project manager for construction of the new St. Peter’s, he designs a spectacularly monumental central-plan building, but it is never executed. Giorgio Vasari publishes the first edition of his biographies of artists (1553), which includes that of Michelangelo, the first that he has written about a living artist. Vasari founds the first academy of drawing in Florence in 1563. Thus he establishes drawing not only as an indispensable discipline for every budding artist: as the purest version of the idea, it is considered the mother of all artistic genres. Michelangelo’s marble group for a Pietà (Cathedral Museum, Florence), which the 75-year-old artist creates for his own tomb, remains, like an alternative version, the Rondanini Pietà, unfinished. Michelangelo dies on February 18, 1564, only a few days before his eighty-ninth birthday. His nephew Leonardo Buonarroti secretly brings the body to Florence, where Michelangelo is celebrated in a solemn funeral procession as the greatest genius of his time.