Michelangelo:the last decades

The British Museum, in assembling drawings and letters from the last thirty years of Michelangelo’s life have provide insights into his aesthetic development over this duration. As a devout Catholic, he is presented to be increasingly pre-occupied with the state of his own soul and it is the medium of drawing that is most intimately employed to present this. The question that might be asked then is this passage also a sign of a late style within his production of work or is his meditations on his physical demise aligned to consciousness of approaching death to be more simply understood as being outside of broader historical or stylistic changes that he was witness to. In art historical terms this marked the transition from the High Renaissance and the advent of Mannerism. Stylistically this shift was marked by exaggeration, which is one of the general features of late style. There is the sense though that he was not overly preoccupied by this, as much as by the destination that is surplus and thus independent to it.

More than any other feature, there is certainly a quality of solemnity in many of these drawings exhibited, particularly of the crucifix drawings, which appear to be distinguished from drawings undertaken as preparatory works. With this the drawings are cast adrift from a transitional status, into works that discover their object of attention within the interiority of the artist. Connected to this change of sense, the drawings themselves become subject to repetitions and refiguration which might be also a sign of fixation or even obsession. In such a process of designation, we become witness to a constellation through which something is seen to endure in the form of a circulation around the figures of suffering and death. The body becomes a sign onto which destination is etched into, so the inscription process (drawing) is also the consciousness of marking out lived experience. This in turn erases aesthetic distance to become instead a form of exposure to the conditions that are marked by this process of erasure. The idea of how to portray the body within the drawing process was also complemented by the practice of the cutting of the body within anatomical practices. Life and death were thus connected between what can be drawn and that which can be cut into. This implied a materialisation of this relationship that started to transform the discourse of death within European culture.

The staging of the crucifixion drawings within a black, darkened, circular space serves to figure a doubled over fold within these works, because they stage not only a sequence of successive drawings, but they figure an arrest of this succession. In this they are cast adrift into a space of dissolution outside of historical progression (transhistorical), becoming instead a meditation on ending itself. The figure of history is dispensed with and instead a space of theological is constituted in an act of replacing determination and progression with the erasure of the end. Rather than being viewed as a space of regression, this space of presentation stages a disavowal of the work of art being an object of knowledge. It is beyond representation and therefore autotelic. Michelangelo is an artist who is related to the idea of being an agency for the act of service who pushed his art beyond the designs of those who generated the commission. Genius can be said to be that which is able to go beyond what is given, with one who is able to generate forms beyond what is given. In short, genius is attached to the autotelic.





Michelangelo:the last decades
British Museum
2 May – 28 July 2024



Text by Jonathan Miles


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