How do you draw God’s big toe?
What about his pointing index finger?
Those questions, plus a lot more, were faced by Michelangelo Buonarroti around 1510, when he was preparing to paint “Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The famous ceiling fresco is huge — some 5,700 square feet of art — and filled with biblical figures and Christian stories. Smack in the center comes a pivotal moment: the birth of humankind.
Partial answers to the question of how to make the biblical word into dynamic flesh are now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, where a terrific exhibition of Michelangelo drawings has just opened. It features 28 sheets, plus a beautiful, sympathetic portrait head of the artist at the age of 75, drawn in black chalk by his friend Daniele da Volterra, 34 years Michelangelo’s junior.
But the show feels much larger than it is. One reason is that Michelangelo drew on both sides of all but four of these sheets of paper.
So that makes 53 drawings — and even more when you consider that one side might include multiple sketches. Paper wasn’t brand-new in 15th century Italy, when the show begins, but neither was it mass-produced. Paper was not inexpensive, and Michelangelo was a voracious draftsman.
A triple-threat — gifted as a painter, sculptor (which he preferred) and architect — Michelangelo made drawings in all three areas. The show includes drawings related to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Last Judgment mural on the chapel’s end-wall and a fresco planned (but not executed) for a government building in Florence; to marble sculptures for the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, one of the Florence-born artist’s first great patrons; and, to the vestibule design of the Laurentian Library and the magnificent, structurally risky dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (he didn’t live to see it built).
The other reason the show feels so substantial is the deft design of its installation.
Because of the double-sided sheets, all of Michelangelo’s drawings are shown on free-standing pedestals. Next to each one, a shorter kiosk includes cogent information, including photographs of any related painting or sculpture, plus an indication of exactly where the drawing was utilized in the finished work. There’s also an unobtrusive, interactive digital kiosk with multiple screens.
The split arrangement gives primacy to the art, while making revealing data accessible. Viewers also get physically spread out a bit.
Given Michelangelo’s fame, expect this show to be crowded. Looking at drawings is an intimate, close-up affair, and it’s a relief not to have the drawings hanging on walls.
The artist made thousands of drawings, most of them in preparation for his finished work. Only some 600 exist today. Proud and paranoid, Michelangelo burned stacks of them to prevent what he feared would be theft of his work by other artists.
One of the most compelling features of the show is what the drawings reveal about distinctions between his approaches to painting and sculpture.
Take a male nude figure that spirals in space, a study for a painted fresco. The figure’s barely sketched legs are shown in linear profile, rising to a fully defined torso that twists away from us at the waist and finally ending at a head that is sketched out from behind. One word describes the swelling musculature of the body, drawn in hatched-black chalk with white highlights to accentuate dimensional volume, and that word is sculptural.
By contrast, a second nude male figure, drawn about 25 years later in preparation for “The Genius of Victory” — a sculpture — is quite different. Musculature and torqued volume are still very much in evidence, but now Michelangelo has gently rubbed the black chalk into the paper, smudging the surface with his fingers. The technique emphasizes a surface sheen, which will be critical to the visual effect created by the sculpture’s carved and polished marble.
In short: Michelangelo highlights two-dimensional surface to work out the demands for a three-dimensional sculpture, but he highlights three-dimensional form to prepare for the illusion required in a two-dimensional painting. Those brilliant compensations for each chosen medium, which might at first seem contradictory, are one reason he’s an artistic genius.
The exhibition is titled “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master,” and the reference to “mind” is key. Drawing is the most direct record of an artist’s evolving thought, brain-to-hand-to-paper. You can feel it unfolding throughout the show.
Some works are unrelated to the artist’s known paintings and sculptures, including the two remarkable works from the Getty’s own collection.
“Study of a Mourning Woman” (1500-1505) was acquired three years ago. A breathtaking figure in hatched and cross-hatched brown ink, it’s highlighted with opaque white watercolor along the shoulder and arm to pull them to the visual foreground.
That pull works against the push of the shrouded woman’s crossed arms, which tug her veil across a shadowed face. A soulful image of private ache blossoms within a taut yet monumental presence.
In 1993 the Getty acquired “The Holy Family With the Infant Saint John the Baptist” (1525-early 1530s), a complex scene featuring four figures plus a grazing donkey. The tightly massed family is at rest on the return from the perilous flight into Egypt, fleeing Herod’s murderous wrath.
In one of the warmest features of the composition, the Christ child appears to be nursing at Mary’s breast. Through the placement of Joseph’s gently crossed arms directly behind them, the action of nursing is tied straight to the lowly donkey that carried them to safety, who also nibbles at nourishment nearby.
Michelangelo, in a profound assertion of humility, draws a visual link between the Christ child and an everyday beast of burden. Visualizing an inseparable union of spiritual and material worlds is where he excelled.
Numerous anatomical drawings of muscles, tendons and bones in a neck, shoulder, leg, knee or foot — including the big toe — show him going beneath observable skin to understand structurally how a body stands, reclines, stretches and moves. (The precocious artist began to witness medical dissections while still a Florentine teenager.) Other works put that knowledge to use in composing the precise position of a bent leg or showing what happens to a back when an arm is folded behind it.
For a simple reason, this emphasis on the human and the ordinary served Michelangelo in good stead. He wasn’t just showing off that he could draw. The focused skill also served the church, his primary patron. Ascendant during Italy’s Renaissance was a conception, sometimes contentious, of Christ as a synthesis of fully divine and fully human.
Michelangelo gave this rationally impossible fusion convincing aesthetic form in imaginative paintings and sculptures anchored in material reality. Feet are notoriously difficult to draw; however, getting God’s big toe right really mattered. There’s a reason he was known in his time as “the divine Michelangelo.”
The show was jointly organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it was seen last fall (and which also lent a powerful double-sided drawing, related to the Sistine ceiling) and the Getty. Smartly assembled by curators Emily J. Peters, Julian Brooks and Edina Adam, it primarily features an extraordinary group of Michelangelo drawings acquired 230 years ago by the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands’ oldest continuously operating museum.
Lucky Haarlem. And, until June 7, lucky us.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, through June 7
Info: (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu