The aptly titled Michelangelo: “Mind of the Master” is a bit like walking through the legendary artist’s imagination, featuring 28 pages filled with sketches and preparatory studies for paintings and sculptures spanning the course of his career and several rooms at The Getty. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti hardly needs an introduction, nearly a millennium after his death he remains among the best-known artists in the Western tradition, with works such as the iconic, wary-eyed David providing a visual definition of the Renaissance era. These drawings, largely culled from the collection of the Teyler Museum (Haarlem, Netherlands) uniting with two of the Getty’s own and on loan from The Cleveland Museum of Art, trace Michelangelo’s artistic development over 60-plus years. The earliest consist of straight-forward figurative studies made while still learning by copying earlier masters (such as Masaccio) to the increasingly dynamic studies for mature commissions such as the Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Sistine Chapel Ceiling to the bravura of those made in preparation for the epic Last Judgment fresco painting gracing the altar wall of the Vatican.
Throughout the exhibition, the installations of the drawings are rather like sculptural objects themselves. Rather than hung evenly spaced on the museum walls, as one might anticipate, the drawings are mounted on pedestals, often in double-faced frames, allowing viewers to observe the layers of sketches gracing both sides of the nearly 500-year-old sheets of paper. The low lighting, which is done to preserve the fragile nature of the medium, creates an intimate viewing experience. One approaches these drawings-in-the-round, as it were, to observe the well-worn pages from various angles in the same manner one views sculpture. Careful study offers numerous rewards, from detecting subtle evolutions in Michelangelo’s technique to the short-hand notes and quick notations that accompany his anatomical studies.
Devastatingly, Michelangelo had literally thousands of such drawings destroyed, up to 28,000 by some accounts, in an effort to hide his artistic process and conjure the notion of spontaneous creation through divine inspiration, what might be thought of today as “artistic genius.” In an ironic twist that viewing these works, essentially Michelangelo’s problem-solving / brain-storming sessions, does more to confirm than dissuade from notions of the artist’s abundant talent. Figures, rendered in ink and chalk, twist and turn as if trying to escape the flat surface of the aged pages. The detailed musculature of the figures and fragmented limbs, not only confirm his talent but evoke his legacy and the debts later artists, such wide-ranging figures as Reynolds, Gericault, Fuseli and Rodin, to name but a few. It begs the question, who’s next?