Photo Essay: Michelangelo's Dream at the Courtland Gallery, London
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
When I saw the big notice that Michelangelo's Dream drawings were going to be exhibited in London, I seriously got excited. Michelangelo is one of my heroes. That divine madness in driving extreme ability and expertise to deliver earth shattering images in stone, frescos, paintings and drawings has rarely been exceeded in history. Living to 90 years of age and being so prolific! A fascinating hand, wonderful vision, passion within every stroke and I would get a chance to look at his work from very close range. All my previous experiences with his work have been from a distance in Italy. So while you can appreciate the totality of his work, you cannot get close and personal to observe the small lines and see how he erased his previous lines and improved his work. So off I went to the Courtland Gallery where the exhibition was held. Can you imagine? This is next door to my Kings College London university campus, where I have been studying for the past 6 years, and I didn't even know this existed. What a doofus I am! Anyway, better late than never I say.
It was on the top floor of the building in just one room. The room was dimly lit, strong lighting would not be good for such ancient parchments and pencil drawings and can cause them to fade. That also made my photographs a bit blurry sometimes, so apologies for the bad quality of some of them. There were quite a lot of people in there, so I had to take photographs from a bit of a distance. And the damn security guard wouldn't allow me to carry my backpack on my back, it apparently is dangerous, so I had to drag it along. Anyway, the drawings were on the walls and on one column in the middle. The foreground display case shows the love letters Michelangelo wrote to Tommaso de' Cavalieri, a young Roman chap with whom he had fallen in love. The drawings were made as an expression of love from Michelangelo to Tommaso around 1533. The homoerotic nature of the drawings is clear and shows the pure depth of his love. The poems are even better.
These are two letters, on the left is a draft of a letter from Michelangelo to Tommaso and on the right is a letter from Tommaso to Michelangelo. The love that Michelangelo has for Tommaso clearly shines through, although Tommaso’s letter is a bit cooler and more factual. Hmmm.
This is the first drawing, Fall of Phaeton. Phaeton, son of Apollo, asks to drive his father’s chariot of the sun. When he loses control, Jupiter (on top) destroys the chariot and the charioteer (in the middle with the falling chariot and horses), and they fall into the River Po. Heliades, his grieving sisters, are transformed into poplar trees, while another relative Cygnus is converted into a swan. This is about 2.5 feet by 1.5 feet in size and the power it shows - despite it being just pencil drawing - is awesome. You can literally feel the thunderbolt from Jupiter. If you lean in close, you can hear the wind whistling by the falling chariot and the terrified screaming of the horses, whose paws are thrashing the air. In the background, you can hear the soft sorrowful keening of his sisters and you are just waiting to hear the giant splash as the chariot lands in the river.
This was an extraordinary drawing, a preparatory drawing of a furious and fulminating Jupiter getting ready to discharge his thunderbolt at Phaeton. There are previous drafts shown on the wall and you can see how Michelangelo developed this drawing after discussing them with Tommaso. You could almost see the story being told and Michelangelo reading the letters from Tommaso and looking at his draft drawings, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, smearing pencil dust on his cheeks and then getting down to do passionately start another drawing.
This is the second drawing, Ganymede. Jupiter falls in love with Ganymede, the most beautiful of mortals, and then, disguised as an Eagle, kidnaps Ganymede to serve him as a cup bearer on Mount Olympus. The face of Ganymede is indeed beautiful, if resigned to his fate, while the fierce eagle is almost carrying out a sexual act on Ganymede. Ganymede’s arms are limp around the eagle’s wing and body, while the claws hold the legs apart firmly but carefully. The musculature is clear. Mind you, the wings could have been bigger, but that is a minor quibble. Was this an allegory for Michelangelo and Tommaso? I don't know, but it is beautiful, it is impossible not to get into the scene. Such is the power of Michelangelo’s drawing, 400 years into the future.
This is the Bacchanal. Apologies for the 2 dark spots, I was taking this photo from a long distance and people were moving in and out of the cadre in front of me. I am not sure what this represents. It shows a group of children in the middle carrying a horse towards a cauldron. A man is slumped in the right foreground, while under the step on the left foreground, a very old woman is suckling a child. There are other people around the drawing who are drunk or drinking. And the drawing has a reddish colour. The technical virtuosity is not in doubt, even if the subject is a bit bewildering.
The Resurrection. Christ has risen from his tomb and is reaching upwards. The guards are either sleeping or terrified as the one on the right. But it's the figure of Christ which draws the eye, his long lean body reaching up into the skies to God. You can see the eagerness in the body, emerging from the tomb, the quivering tension in the muscles and stretched six pack in the stomach. This is not what you expect Jesus to look like. In most of the other representations, he is shown as a pale, thin emaciated man. But he was supposed to be a carpenter, accustomed to heavy labour and exercise. Jesus here is looking like a Greek God, with a tall frame, wide shoulders, thickly muscled, with shapely legs. It is quite shocking and eye catching. Just lovely.
Then we come to the main drawing, The Dream. This shows a nude youth leaning against a globe on a box filled with masks. He is surrounded by a group of figures representing gluttony, lust, avarice, envy, wrath, sloth and sexual desire. The youth is turning to a winged angel who is awakening him with a blast of a trumpet. The face of the angel is that of a cherub, but the body is that of a grown man, a bit incongruous. However, the power of Michelangelo is not in the main subjects of the youth or the angel, but in the surrounding figures. Using small pencil strokes, he has managed to clearly exhibit very complex emotions such as laziness or envy. Envy! Try imagining facial expressions which reflect that. I can't even do that in my head, but he not only imagined it, but also was able to translate that on pencil and paper. What a man!
This is Tityus in Hades, having his liver devoured by an eagle for his attempt to rape the mother of Apollo. The giant is tied down with his right hand on the rock. Can you see how the muscles are tensed up? Also, notice the claws of the eagle. The way this eagle is clutching the giant is massively different from the Ganymede drawing. And the drawing is deliberately positioned to the left and pointing to the bottom left. It provides a tension to the drawing.
This is a poem, “I cannot imagine another figure”, that Michelangelo wrote to / for Tommaso. He is describing the crisis of being defenceless against the beauty of his beloved and unarmed in the battle against desire, but fears the loss of his strength and death should he try to flee. I wasn't able to find an accurate translation for the poem, but there were many like this shown. He wrote more than 300 poems, 40 odd to Tommaso. Pretty impressive.
An unknown follower of Michelangelo drew this tremendously eye catching figure of a man’s torso. You can imagine the man trying to lift or push apart tremendous weights.
This is 'Christ Before Pilate'. He is drawing the time when Christ is brought as a prisoner in front of Governor Pontius Pilate. Experts think that this might be a study for one of the reliefs on the facade of San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy.
While this was not done by Michelangelo, it still caught my eye. It is an engraving of his 'Last Judgement', printed from ten plates. You can make out the plates as they are in discrete sections. It is just amazing how much he has influenced the future of art and drawing.
That’s the end, I tried to show some of the most important drawings and what I felt while observing this master's work (something like watching Tendulkar bat). Perhaps I will go back again to see it one more time, and this time fog up the glass by peering at it very closely. Full slide show here.
Photo Essay: Michelangelo's Dream at the Courtland Gallery, London
- » Published on May 31, 2010
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