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3 mai 2024

Michelangelo: the last decades at British Museum

Michelangelo: the last decades at British Museum

LONDON - A landmark new exhibition at the British Museum will explore the final three decades of the Renaissance master Michelangelo’s illustrious life and career. Michelangelo: the last decades (2 May – 28 July 2024) will delve exclusively into this significant – and arguably most demanding – period of the artist’s life, focusing on how his art and faith evolved through the common challenge of ageing in a rapidly changing world.

 

The monumental, over-two-metres-high Epifania (about 1550–53) will be displayed for the first time since its painstaking conservation which began back in 2018. The only complete surviving cartoon (a full-scale preparatory drawing, from the Italian word for a large sheet of paper) by Michelangelo, it is among the largest Renaissance works on paper, and one of the great treasures of the British Museum collection.

 

For the first time in over four centuries, Michelangelo: the last decades will reunite the Epifania with the painting made from it by Michelangelo's biographer, Ascanio Condivi. The work, loaned from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, is a fascinating example of how the elderly Michelangelo used his skill in drawing to create models for others to paint.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) left Florence for Rome in 1534, never to see his native city again. This move marked the beginning of a dramatic new chapter which would fundamentally shape his experiences as both an artist and as a man.

 

The popular perception of Michelangelo focuses on the famous works of his youth: the David (1501–04), for example, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo: the last decades will introduce visitors to the remarkable variety and inventiveness of his late career, which saw him still working four days before his death in 1564, aged 88.

 

The exhibition will look at the way Michelangelo redefined the iconography of religious art to create hugely influential compositions of key moments in Christianity, such as the Crucifixion, the Lamentation and the Last Judgment, at a time when the Catholic church was being challenged as never before.

 

Numerous other works from the British Museum’s unrivalled collection of Michelangelo drawings will also be shown for the first time in almost two decades, including preparatory drawings from the Last Judgment, which chart how Michelangelo invented a fresh vision of how the human form would be refashioned at the end of the world. Such was the boldness of his innovation that his painting was fiercely criticized and then censored.

 

Michelangelo: the last decades will also look beyond the artist to reveal his personality. Through a diverse array of his poems, letters and artistic designs, the exhibition will provide rare insights into the artist's engaging interaction with his innermost and most trusted circle.

 

Generous loans from the British Library include lively letters to his young nephew that show Michelangelo had an irritable side, easily sparked to annoyance. Meanwhile, poems and drawings directed to his aristocratic friends, Tommaso de' Cavalieri and the poet Vittoria Colonna, provide evidence of his passionate and deeply felt attachment to them. One exquisite work created as part of this correspondence, lent by His Majesty The King from the Royal Collection, is The Punishment of Tityus (about 1532) showing an eagle tearing out the liver of a bound naked man, gifted to Tommaso as moral guidance for the young man.

 

The intensity of Michelangelo’s faith strengthened as he aged. On show will be one of the most moving examples of his meditation on Christ's death and his own mortality: a group of drawings of the Crucifixion, made during the last ten years of his life. Through them we witness an elderly artist turning to the act of drawing as a means of spiritual meditation – variations on a single theme to explore his feelings about mortality, sacrifice, faith, and the prospect of redemption.

 

Sarah Vowles, Curator of Italian & French Prints & Drawings comments: “When Michelangelo moved to Rome in 1534, he was almost sixty years old. This exhibition follows him through the next three decades, until his death at the age of almost 89, exploring the variety of works he produced – from the Last Judgment to the dome of St Peter’s – and the ways in which he evolved his working practice in later life. It also introduces visitors to Michelangelo as a man, bound in a rich network of friendships, and brings his own voice to the fore – articulate, impassioned, often prickly, but never anything less than compelling.”

 

Michelangelo: the last decades will run from 2 May – 28 July 2024 in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum.

 

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564), Epifania . Black chalk on paper , about 1550 - 53. © The Trustees of the British Museum

 

This gigantic drawing, executed on twenty-six sheets of paper, was made as a cartoon: a full-scale blueprint for a work of art , probably a panel picture. Michelangelo's drawing was turned into a painting by his pupil and early biographer Ascanio Condivi. Both works are traditionally called 'Epifania', in reference to the three Magi, but their iconography remains elusive.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), the punishment of Tityus. Black chalk on paper, 1532. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

 

As punishment for his attempted rape of the goddess Leto, the giant Tityus was condemned to have his liver devoured daily by a vulture (replaced here by an eagle). This is one of a series of exquisite drawings, based on classical mythology with moral messages, which Michelangelo made as gifts for his young friend Tommaso de' Cavalieri. With its variety of finish, centred on Tityus’ meticulously executed body, it is a demonstration of Michelangelo's draughtsmanship at its most refined.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), the fall of Phaeton. Black chalk, over stylus underdrawing, on paper, about 1533. © The Trustees of the British Museum

 

The arrogant Phaeton, son of the sun-god Helios, falls from his father's chariot aJer losing control. Zeus aims a thunderbolt from the top of the drawing while, below, Phaeton's weeping sisters are transformed into trees. This is a preparatory study for one of the highly finished drawings Michelangelo made for his young friend Tommaso de' Cavalieri, for whom he nurtured a deep platonic passion. A note at the bottom, in the artist's hand, asks Tommaso to let Michelangelo know what he thinks of the design.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), study for the 'Last Judgment'. Black chalk on paper, about 1534–36. © The Trustees of the British Museum

 

Michelangelo made numerous preparatory drawings for his fresco of the 'Last Judgment', as he had to be satisfied with the composition before beginning to paint on the wet plaster. This powerful drawing displays his continuing fascination with the human for m and shows off his ability to depict the body in dramatic poses. This man, braced on bent arms, appears as one of the souls rising from their tombs at the bottom of the finished fresco.

 

Marcello Venusti (about 1512–79), 'The Purification of the Temple'. Oil on wood, about 1550. © The National Gallery, London.

 

This painting, by Michelangelo's collaborator Marcello Venusti, is based on Michelangelo's own drawings. Michelangelo conceived the figures in the shape of a lunette (a crescent), before Venusti adapted the designs for an upright painting in which the group appear before dramatic twisting columns intended to evoke the Temple in Jerusalem.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564), Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and St John. Black chalk and white lead on paper, about 1555–64. © The Trustees of the British Museum

 

Among Michelangelo's most moving, in)mate expressions of faith is a group of drawings of the Crucifixion, probably made over an extended period of time during the last 10 years of his life. These works show the elderly artist using the act of drawing as a means of spiritual meditation – making variations on a single theme to explore his feelings about mortality, sacrifice, faith and redemption.

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