Michelangelo Painted Physiques, Not People

The more John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century art critic, thought about Michelangelo, the less he liked him. He knew there was no way around admitting Michelangelo’s excellence: no one could stand in the Sistine or the Medici Chapel without feeling awe at the unique style, the terribilitá, of the Master.

Yet—what was there?  It took Ruskin years  of mulling until he thought he had it:  Michelangelo was coarse. He was a show-off, a phoney.  He exaggerated everything in his figures—everything that might draw attention to them—except for the thing that mattered most: their facial expression. That was what in people you checked out first to see their character, their intentions, their soul.  Michelangelo’s figures had no face, no expression, or then a very vulgar one. Look at those angels blowing the horns of Doom in the Last Judgment fresco: those are faces of foolishness.

The Last Judgment (detail) photo released by the Vatican into the public domain here

Look at the face of his Bacchus: it is vulgar, lewd.  Even his David’s scowl is phoney, stagey.  Those faces, said Ruskin, ruin his great figures and show his own miserly, selfish, vindictive nature.  Wasn’t it said that the chief devil at the bottom of the Last Judgment fresco was the portrait of a papal representative that Michelangelo disliked?  What kind of artist was Buonarroti?  A priest of Beauty must himself be immaculate.  A man who lectures on the teachings of nature must be able to learn.

In an essay called Tintoretto and Michelangelo, Ruskin says that Michelangelo easily stole the show from other equally great or even superior artists like Raphael by his exaggerated anatomy and twisting figures.  But his message was empty.  The figures are mere anatomical studies. Tintoretto knew as much about the human body and could draw it as easily and without fanfare.  He was like the sleek, powerful leopard that leaps over an abyss effortlessly and with a perfect calculation of the distance. Showing off what he knew of anatomy never occurred to Tintoretto.  A knowledge of anatomy was only one of an artist’s instruments—a means to the end of revealing the soul.  What was important was to show man as a spiritual being.  Buonarroti was incapable of that.

Ruskin’s way of looking at the artist is far from the modern one.  Few would say they expect a work of art to be beneficial to life, to character, or to the community of men, and  to lead the viewer to right living.  And no one would disqualify a painting as great art because the painter is an alcoholic or a coward or an embezzler. We even expect the artist to be a little odd.
And yet, most great artists went right on preaching all through the twentieth century: See Kandinski and his Theosophy; Orozco and his anti-Capitalist frescoes; Rothko and his mysticism; Chagall and his message of Love.  When an artist didn’t preach—take Picasso (excepting the Guernika)—we even MISS a metaphysical or moral message to his work, which sometimes seems empty, cold, only formally curious, like mere decoration.

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4 Responses to Michelangelo Painted Physiques, Not People

  1. wpm1955 says:

    I am really enjoying these discussions of artists themselves. It makes me feel like I am getting to know them personally. These are some of my favorite posts here.

    Best regards,
    Madame Monet

  2. will says:

    Very interesting discussion. I have a lot of time for Ruskin, and I suggest his book ‘The Elements of Drawing’ is one of the best tutorials in the art of drawing. I like his work as well, and I think his devotion to Turner is touching. And yet, I disagree completeley with his coarse and unfair judgement about Michelangelo.
    First, on the ‘immaculate’ requirement from artsists, I guess Ruskin himself might have felt a little uneasy about unpleasant allegations that were put forward against him.
    As for the ‘vulgarity’ of MB figures, I remember a wonderful exhibition of small drawings in chalk in Le Louvre some 20 years ago, with some of the well known madonnas and child, cleopatra etc.. They, in my view, have the delicacy of Raphael’s portraits plus some supplementary strength that is MB’s hallmark.
    On the Last Judgement, it is no surprise that the terribilita dominates everything, and that little if any kindness or softness would be expected anywhere there. The bodies speak even better than figures in expressing feelings and state of mind in such a context anyway. And yet, there is one figure at the bottom left corner showing a woman ressucitated and ascending to Heaven just above the ground. Little of her face is visible, and yet her whole body and attitude expresses the indicible exhilaration of being elected to the Eternal Life so powerfully: this is one of the most moving figure that I have ever seen in painting.
    A last point, certainly very controversial I reckon: I was disappointed by Tintoretto when visiting the Scuola San Rocco. But I guess that must be my fault…
    Best Regards

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: I think I have seen that Ruskin book on drawing. I read a lot of him years ago—“so right and yet so wrong” (or something similar), as Christopher Isherwood wrote in one of his novels, where his protagonist re-reads Ruskin after years. There’s no one like him. Because of his “archness” (Kenneth Clark’s word), as well as some facts of his biography, he is very easy to attack. They love to tell you how Whistler beat him in court or how he couldn’t deal with his wedding night. Yet Ruskin was a greater writer than Whistler a painter. He was one of those great nineteenth-century personalities like Nietzsche and Whitman and Wilde and Twain. Proust admired his writing and learned from him.

      He mesmerizes with his rhetorics and the painterliness of his prose. And he often leads the reader to conclusions that the reader must renounce after he has sobered and compared them with his own. After reading some of his Modern Painters I was surprised to see him champion Turner, though I was more surprised after reading more of him, to see him call Hunt’s “The Light of the World” the greatest painting of the century. “Did I misunderstand him all along?” I wondered.

      His criticism of Michelangelo fit my idea of Ruskin better, though there I knew at once that we didn’t agree. Tintoretto can be very good but he is not the equal of Michelangelo. Though I have never been to the Scuola San Rocco, I have seen many of Tintoretto’s paintings (a few years ago there was a travelling show at the Prado) and I have to say that, like you, I was disappointed.

      I’m not sure which figure in the Last Judgment you mean. Is it the one just above the skeleton, a little to the left? I think you are right in answering Ruskin that way. He simply couldn’t tolerate Michelangelo’s lack of modesty.

  3. will says:

    About the last point, it is indeed the figure you mention, a woman ascending to heaven in ecstasy. Ever since I saw it, I believe I understand better what religion means by resurrection.
    Now, let me come back on Ruskin. First, you give me a good incentive to read Modern Painters. I bought them long ago in Oxford, in a beautiful ancient edition…and the leatherbound books are so heavy that I never got into them seriously.
    I find the story of the pre-raphaelite movement quite interesting. They seem to me a good example of the helplessness artists meet when they decide to open ‘new vistas’ away, and often against what the geniuses they are confronted to have offered the world. I somehow figure out that they acknowledged (and resented) the overwhelming superiority of Raffaelo, Michelangelo and al., and wanted to free themselves from the unbearable comparison with their own, hmm.. limited capabilities. So, they chose to go backwards, before the Renaissance giants, hoping to find some way to move around them into a new field. Ruskin did support them efficiently as you said with his writer’s skills, as well as with his intelligence in analyzing the process of design (drawing).
    I can understand their intent, and even sympathize with it. Renaissance masters themselves took a similar approach at looking backwards when backing themselves up against the Ancients’ wonderful achievements. They looked at the perfection summits that the Ancients had reached, and decided to meet these apexes and even to go further beyond. By contrast, the problem that pre-raphaelites got was perhaps that they did not start from a peak of the past to go further higher, but instead chose to bog themselves down into the downs of an obscure and not well defined past.
    At least they tried to keep a connection with a past. One could not say the same for many supporters of ‘contemporary art’, which after the de-construction achieved by the several art movements in the last century, are left with just their own self…which results in so many failures, and so few and far between successes.
    Not that I see nothing at all in contemporary art, but I cannot help comparing the brilliance of King François1er (I realize from this blog that he is known as King Francis in English) who had Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Cellini working for him and who bought Raffaelo, Michelangelo and other’s master pieces, with the situation of our current men of power who can only put forward Koons or Murakami in Versailles to enhance their cultural prestige (?!)
    Best Regards,

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