Patrons filled the palatial museum, eager to see the work of the great 15th-century master, Michelangelo, in The Mind of the Master special exhibit that just recently opened at the renowned J.Paul Getty Center.
The Getty, built of 16,000 tons of travertine stone from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy, a city 15 miles east of Rome, would have made Michelangelo feel right at home.
But what is it about the master artists that hold people’s imagination and awe, still today? How do the great masters of the Renaissance compete with Hollywood’s animated superheroes or Netflix’s binge-worthy content?
And what is it about Michelangelo in particular?
One week after the opening of the exhibition, overcrowded museum halls speak for themselves. Michelangelo was and remains a superstar. Masses continue flocking to see this 500-year-old work, despite the threat of world pandemics, or L.A. traffic.
This is not the first time Michelangelo’s work has drawn huge crowds. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that their show Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, which opened on November 13, 2017, and closed February 12, attracted 702,516 visitors during its three-month run, placing it among the museum’s most visited exhibitions of all time in its 148-year history. It is also the most visited drawings exhibition ever organized by the museum.
Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of The Met said, “Eight years in the making, the show was a comprehensive and breathtaking reexamination of a luminary of Renaissance art, and marks the first time a collection of this magnitude has been united in one place.”
Born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Republic of Florence [Italy]—the Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet has exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art.
It was said that he didn’t imagine the images he portrayed, but rather saw them like one would see a vision.
In such precarious times, amidst an unprecedented virus, floods, and fires from Australia to Mississippi, walking into the Getty Museum’s huge reproduction of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, we can’t help but feel Michelangelo was talking about us.
It is said of good art and artists that they speak across space and time. Michelangelo offers some hope and insight to understand or endure these tumultuous times.
Michelangelo said, “The mind, the soul, becomes ennobled by the endeavor to create something perfect, for God is perfection, and whoever strives after perfection is striving for something divine.”
Perhaps Michelangelo’s eternal esteem lies in that he helps us remember that which is divine in the physical world, and divine in ourselves. Perhaps this is the salve he offers, inspiration and elevation.
Joshua Jacobo, the founder of New Masters Academy, sees Michelangelo as his greatest art teacher. Jacobo set his goal early in his art journey of copying every single one of Michelangelo’s drawings available in high-quality art books today and has continued to revisit these drawings, again and again. He mentioned in several of the drawing lessons that he learned most of his expertise from studying from Michelangelo by not just copying but trying to reconstruct the master’s drawing process. Jacobo analyses the construction and is tuning into the idea of the design rather than the finished outcome. ”By studying the technique and aesthetic, you get a glimpse into the mind of the master and those lessons are some of the most valuable.”
Joshua Jacobo was eager to see the exhibition in the Getty Center in Los Angles this past Sunday and offered a detailed written drawing analysis of one of the most impressive drawings by Michelangelo on display, Studies of the upper body of a man:
In “Studies of the upper body of a man,” we see Michelangelo working out a design for the Sistine chapel, the Punishment of Haman. It’s a bold and difficult composition, full of unusual angles and strong foreshortening. The left-arm thrusts forward and the right arm lifts and recedes. It’s a play on the Christian crucifixion theme, but this time the victim lunges towards us dramatically as opposed to having been arranged front-on. I believe this was a study done from life, probably modeled for by one of the master’s assistants, based on a design he already had mostly worked out. If you observe the final fresco panel, you’ll see why Michelangelo needed to do these studies in fragments; the full pose would not be feasible for a model to hold.
This study is done in sanguine, a brittle pigment, basically, a stone, and would have first been blocked in with thin lines as we can see with the little hand study underneath the figure’s right armpit. It was Michelangelo’s habit when working from life to make clear shape statements with careful attention to overlaps. And this drawing is a true masterclass in overlapping and foreshortened forms.
Notice how the left arm moves from the wrist—the hand having been mostly left as a thin sketch in order to study the face—and fits into to forearm which in turn wedges into the upper arm, with the deltoid and pectoralis major descending into the torso on either side. It’s a beautiful display of drawing ability as well as a facility with the human form. Michelangelo is drawing modified egg shapes, but his anatomical landmarks give the illusion of much more realism. The condyles of the humerus, the transition of the shared tendon of triceps brachii to the lateral and long heads and the proper overlapping of the muscles that make up the wall of axilla—the armpit, all contribute to the illusion that we are looking at flesh and bone. The experienced draftsperson can, with some attention, recognize the simple lines and shapes used to create this illusion.
The head and neck are drawn exceptionally well, even in such a challenging and unusual pose. We see the head from below, the underside of the jaw or digastric plane in full view, and he plays the construction of the chin, nose, and brow all against this ground truth. There is a transition of the bow-like triangular shape to a rounder lower lip to a highly triangular nose and then to flatter arches of the brows and even the block-like hair furthest back in space. In the face itself, observe Michelangelo’s mastery of sculpture in how the ear is properly drawn from below and transitions into the cheekbone which in turn flows into the fat pats that ascend to the bridge of the nose. Also, notice how the strong chewing muscle, the masseter, works its way towards its insertion. This is an artist who truly understands the forms of the head, even from such an extreme angle. He is not forced to copy and he is not discouraged from making strong drawing statements. The neck, reminiscent of the classical sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, is a poetic essay on pain and torment. His use of gestural lines here that flow, compress and twist down to their termination at the pit of the neck.
As we study the right arm, receding from us at a dramatic clip, we are treated to another little visual note by the master. He has just above the deltoid drawn a simple, almost bean-like, carved shape indicating the shape of the forearm. Here we see how the master is thinking, and if we compare it to the forearm of the drawing, we can see how he deftly weaves together, gesture, shape design, anatomy, and rendering technique to create a masterpiece. There’s so much to we can learn by studying these drawings.”
Drawing analysis by Joshua Jacobo
Michelangelo: Mind of the Master runs from February 25 through June 7, 2020, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California.