Michaelangelo, Rodin and genius

My first look yesterday at the new Art Gallery of Ontario show, “Michaelangelo: Quest for Genius”, was an ecstatic experience.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strongly that a curatorial team understand me & my concerns coming to this show, an artist of such importance as to demand respect before you’ve looked at anything.

I suppose I have always resented that kind of authority, however much it might be justified. How then could I get at Michaelangelo—both the man & his work—when his reputation is so immense? And as a writer I felt qualms coming here, hoping I wouldn’t merely spout banalities in the presence of greatness, my poor weak works falling flat on my face. Yes it might be beautiful, but would I sound like a star-struck fan? What could i possibly say that hasn’t already been said many times and better long ago?

In the brief presentation before they turned us loose among the art we heard these very questions addressed by David Wistow and Lloyd Dewitt of the AGO team, interviewed by director Matthew Teitelbaum. What they described in the presentation suggested a way to go into the show, and a way to approach the throne that is Michaelangelo & his work.
There are two big ideas I want to unpack. One concerns the nature of creativity, the other concerns ways of seeing. Let me approach the perceptual one first.

Michelangelo, Three nudes (Studies for the Apostles in the Transfiguration), c. 1532 black chalk 17.8 x 20.9 cm Casa Buonarroti

Michelangelo, Three nudes (Studies for the Apostles in the Transfiguration), c. 1532 black chalk 17.8 x 20.9 cm Casa Buonarroti

I assume that the assembly of this show began with a series of small works from Michaelangelo, collected for centuries by the Casa Buonarotti, hugely valuable pieces that haven’t been seen here before. These are small drawings whose value & worth (in every sense of the word) is huge, yet in comparatively tiny & unassuming pieces in a gallery. Someone had a really clever idea. In the introduction someone spoke of Michaelangelo’s influence over the centuries, and so they paired Michaelangelo’s powerful little drawings with bigger pieces. I wonder, did they ponder over who might not dishonour the master, in the juxtaposition? Whose work would suffice, as a proper accompaniment, to someone who in a real sense taught us how to see?

Someone thought of Rodin. He too, we’re told, had a creative life that was a struggle. And most importantly, Rodin had an epiphany seeing Michaelangelo that changed his art. If I understand this correctly –and I don’t claim I am certain about it—Rodin was influenced more by Michaelangelo than anyone else.  And so we walk around in this wonderful space, that’s shared between the small and the large, Rodin’s work that could be understood as echoes, or even paraphrases, if a sculptor can paraphrase a drawing and the sensibility in those drawings. It’s as though we have the original “pictures at an exhibition” on the piano, and also encounter Rodin’s pieces, that are a lot like the orchestral transcription, but three-dimensional transcriptions of concepts via Michaelangelo’s influence upon Rodin’s sensibility.  We don’t have the literal connection, the one-to-one correspondence between the original and the referent, but still, the parallels are stunning.  Rodin’s sense of proportion & anatomy resonate with Michaelangelo’s physicality.

Auguste Rodin French, 1840-1917 Le Penseur (The Thinker) conceived 1880; cast early 1920s bronze Height: 69.9 cm Gift of Mrs. O.D. Vaughan, 1977, shown in front of an image of Rodin's Gates of Hell.  At first glance i thought this was Michaelangelo, not Rodin.

Auguste Rodin French, 1840-1917 Le Penseur (The Thinker) conceived 1880; cast early 1920s bronze Height: 69.9 cm Gift of Mrs. O.D. Vaughan, 1977, shown in front of an image of Rodin’s Gates of Hell (a piece i didn’t know, and that at first glance i mistook for a Michaelangelo, not Rodin).

I have to go back for another look or two.  But so far I think the big pieces help us to see the proper proportions in the small pieces, that my eye is stimulated by the tension between the different worlds present in the gallery. That’s just a tiny bit of an idea I am struggling to put into words. I’ll go back, and see whether there’s really anything there beyond my sense that I need more time with the art.

As far as the other idea, concerning creativity, it was explained quite clearly by Dewitt, who alluded to a University of Toronto professor, namely Jordan Peterson, as an important input. Their explanation reminded me of Mozart; see if you observe a similar connection. Their perception of a creator whose abilities were godlike, whose output was perfect was ultimately daunting (there we are again, humbled!).  It reminds me of the film Amadeus, when Salieri freaks out at all the perfect scores done in ink, as though the composer were taking dictation from God.

Ah but that beautiful image –Shaffer’s creation as well as the legend that informed it, just like the image of Michaelangelo—is simply wrong. Mozart sketched and worked, even if we only have the perfect copies left to us.

I am always happy when I stumble upon an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding art and how art is made. Psychology (via Professor Peterson) has helped the curatorial team to humanize such forbidding artistry, to deconstruct that myth of the godlike genius, into someone who simply worked incessantly, suffering, discarding, revising… and eventually discovering.

I believe we’ve been messed up badly by criticism & pedagogy, by criteria that inhibit us. Tonight after class I was approached by a student asking about creative outlets, and we talked a bit about teachers who have set us back with their harsh judgments. Teachers of piano or voice are not what they used to be, thank goodness. At one time the raps on the knuckles –whether genuine or merely inflicted verbally—played a part in a kind of self-serving celebration of talent: the recognition of received skill and impossible hierarchies rather than the nurturing of new abilities.  Instead of empowerment we encountered forbidding gate-keepers. If we swallow the old metaphors –of inspiration and god-given talent—we may not think we ourselves are worthy to be admitted to such company, nor anyone else. It’s pretty sick stuff.

There’s a great deal of dead wood to clear away, old ideas about art & the psychology of creativity. A show like this is a wonderful step in the right direction. It’s refreshing that Michaelangelo is one of us, and that we can be welcome in his presence after all.

It’s a beautiful thought.

Michaelangelo: Quest for Genius will run at the AGO October 18, 2014 – January 11, 2015

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Michaelangelo, Rodin and genius

  1. Art Talk says:

    I can’t wait to see this exhibition. Thank you for this!

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