The National Gallery owns two of the three panel paintings normally given to Michelangelo, and this is one of them. They are at the centre of an exhibition which is also interesting for its sculpture. At the NG there are, in all, seven three-dimensional works. Two are called Sleeping Cupid. One is 16th-century Italian, the other Roman from the first or second century AD. A Pieta from a south Netherlandish artist is in alabaster. The four sculptures by Michelangelo do not come directly from his hand and chisel but are casts, two relatively modern and two from the late 19th century. They look very well and although I would like to have been closer to Michelangelo's Pieta - and to have seen the cast in clear daylight - one does feel in the presence of a masterpiece.
It was the last great sculpture of the 15th century: literally so, since Michelangelo carved it in Rome in 1497-1500 (the original is now in St Peter's) and with an emotional finality too, for it aimed to succeed and even eradicate the achievements of earlier quattrocento masters such as Donatello and Verrochio. Michael Hirst, whose exhibition this is, observes how shallow is the literal sculpting of the Pieta in comparison with its width. It is likely, therefore, that it was made for an awkward niche in a chapel. We also infer that this shallowness encouraged Michelangelo to show his mastery over previous relief sculpture - and painting too. It's a very detailed sculpture, and in the profuse but crisp details of drapery, hands and hair we find relations to the pictorial art of the previous century.
The Pieta was celebrated as novel when first seen. None the less there are aspects of the sculpture that one might call gothic. Its tenseness, angularity and emotionalism come from the period before the High Renaissance. Such qualities are not necessarily Italian. In fact the motif of the Virgin holding her dead son's body was a Northern invention. This is why the National Gallery exhibition includes the south Netherlandish Pieta (borrowed from the V & A and I suppose a late addition to the show, since it is neither illustrated in the catalogue nor mentioned in Hirst's text). The excellent little sculpture by the 'Master of Rimini' does, however, demonstrate - as do the other supplementary exhibits - that Michelangelo wielded a supreme power over all artists who had preceded him or worked during his own times. As an artist, I much prefer Donatello. But there are occasions (few, God be praised) when the human must bow to the superhuman, and Michelangelo gives us more than one of these moments.
Connoisseurship and attribution problems are the first theme of this exhibition. Its underlying leitmotif is Michelangelo's inimitable selfhood.
As with all artists, we expect his work to look quite like that of his tutors in his early years. Yet he separated himself. A quite believable story tells how he criticised and corrected his master Ghirlandaio's drawings when still in his teens. There are not many questions of Michelangelo attributions in his early years, for the simple reason that his autograph has a majesty that no one around him could attain. And this, quite obviously, was the case with his early painting of the Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels, often called the 'Manchester Madonna' because its fame in this country began when it was shown at the great Manchester Fine Arts Exhibition in 1857.
This Madonna has been attributed to other artists, in particular one called 'The Master of the Manchester Madonna'. I do not think that there was such a person. There's a painting in the exhibition correctly attributed to a painter who was not a master and is now called, following the usual museum and saleroom practice, 'Associate of Michelangelo'. Looking at their pictures side by side, it's impossible to believe that the 'Associate' could ever have been confused with Michelangelo himself. The Associate's tondo of the Virgin and Child with St John is by a lesser and merely derivative artist.
Michelangelo overpowered his influences, so is the opposite of a painter who formed his style via derivations. This exhibition makes one wonder about his best medium when he was young. To use a 20th-century phrase, his sculpture was 'in front of' his painting at the turn of the 15th century. But the Entombment of 1500-1, unfinished and damaged though it is, shows what a painter on panel or canvas Michelangelo might have become, better than the artist of the Sistine ceiling. Except for one thing: his drawing.
We look at Michelangelo's drawings with inescapable awe. Yet his works on paper - even the early ones like those now on show - tell us that there was something deeply wrong and horrible in his character. I can't define exactly what that was, but know that later Renaissance painting was better when it took other examples to heart.
'The Young Michelangelo': National Gallery (071-389 1785) to 15 Jan.
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