Visual Arts: Like putty in his hands

No one could mould the male form like Michelangelo, and no one, says Tom Lubbock, has ever asked so much of the male anatomy
MICHELANGELO remains a name to conjure with: a power-house, a life-source, a mould-maker, a measure to which no other art quite measures up. When, for example, in the Twenties, Wyndham Lewis wanted to beat Picasso's stout neo-classical figures, Michelangelo was the obvious stick. The Picasso figure, he wrote, "is a beautifully executed, imposing human doll. The figures of Michelangelo, on the other hand - the most supremely noble and terrible creations of the dramatic genius of the West - are creatures of an infectious life. Between the outstretched forefinger of Adam and the figure of the hurrying Jehovah there is an electric force that no vegetative imbecility would be able to convey."

Ah yes, that famous invisible spark - now immortalised, and turned into a very visible Big Bang, in the credits of LWT's The South Bank Show. As for the "infectious life", though, it doesn't appear to have infected much 20th-century art.

Indeed, it's rather a problem for us, this sense of mighty strenuousness, the idea - in the words of Antony Gormley, creator (and model) of the Angel of the North - that "muscular action expresses the metaphysical tension of body and soul". And I think Gormley's reservations speak for many. One may doubt whether Michelangelo's influence is one any artist today would happily catch.

"Michelangelo and His Influence" is an exhibition of drawings from the Royal Collection, now showing at the Queen's Gallery. The influence displayed here doesn't extend much beyond the end of the 16th century (Michelangelo died in 1564, aged 88).

We have his own drawings: anatomical studies, sketches for paintings, finished presentation pieces. We have copies, variants and departures by contemporaries or followers. It's all bodies, of course, parts or wholes - and souls, if you like; predominantly male bodies and souls.

But if we think of Michelangelo as a kind of Frankenstein, bringing the human creature to turbulent life with an electric charge, we'd better take the analogy all the way, and see him as an artist deeply concerned with the constructability and the malleableness of the human form. His art is powered by the realisation - exhilarating and alarming - that he could do with it what he wanted.

With mastery, he could put it through the most incredible twists and turns, displacements and distensions, make it into the most contradictory shapes. Limbs contort this way and that while seeming to perform continuous gestures. Bodies can hurtle forwards while, at the same time, appearing to hit a brick wall. This sounds more like an art we can relate to: a radically ambiguous art that's bent on daring impossibility.

The Resurrection, for instance, offers great opportunities. The Gospels don't describe the event itself. They treat it as a fait accompli: the grave empty and Jesus already up and about. As artists usually picture it, it looks like a victorious act of will - Jesus advances out of the tomb with a strong leg to the fore, or levitates several yards in the air above it. But in Michelangelo's drawings the act isn't clear. You can't tell if Jesus is doing it, or it's happening to him, or what's happening exactly.

Look at The Risen Christ. In his catalogue, Paul Joannides coins an excellent phrase for this single figure. "He bursts from the tomb describing an arc of triumph, an all-encompassing embrace." I like that arc de triomphe. But I don't see the effect described, because the action of the figure is nearly indescribable - it's a thoroughly ambiguous articulation, combining a forward stride, a backward lurch, an outward fling and an upward yank.

The potential for triumph is there. One leg is planted firmly, vertically forward, the arms are spread in a winning gesture. But then this leg is somehow pulled sideways, which aligns it with the much less grounded other leg and the teetering torso. The left arm becomes a frantic attempt to regain balance, while the right arm, reaching straight above the head, seems to be pulled up by an invisible alien grasp. The reviving figure is disoriented and struggling for equilibrium and self-control among these bewildering forces.

It's odd to apply verisimilitude to a picture of an event which is, even for believers, a unique and miraculous mystery. But you could say that Michelangelo's version, by showing Jesus caught in a process that's barely comprehensible - to us or to him - is much nearer what it must have been like. Other artists stage the Resurrection in terms of its glorious meaning. Michelangelo imagines how Jesus might have experienced it himself.

This is rare. With the Crucifixion, it's the normal approach. In that genre, showing and letting us share Christ's agony is a primary objective for many artists. In fact, this diverging attitude towards Jesus's experience is one of the main differences between the two subjects. Crucified, he suffers bodily. Risen, he is beyond such experience - except in Michelangelo. And in another Resurrection, he is subjected to a still more sudden physical paradox. The figure seems to be both taking off and landing hard at the same time.

In his late Crucifixions, Michelangelo finds extreme solutions. "Solutions" might be the wrong word, given that the pictures are clearly not finished. But the striking thing is that these unfinished drawings don't imply a finish. They don't look like they've been abandoned half-way to completion, or like sketches whose suggestions and open options another drawing could sort out. The overlaid multiple positions of the legs and torso of these crucified bodies aren't alternatives waiting to be decided. They're developed and involved together with very gentle and attentive shading. The most unsolved bits of anatomy are the most substantiated.

The effect is more than motion, a writhing. The unfinished aspect is part of the experience conveyed. Jesus' climactic last cry, "It is finished," is permanently deferred. The drawing isn't concluded, no final bodily position is established, the undecided points are worked at and could be worked at more, so the experience goes on and can't arrive at crisis.

Though flesh is fearfully exposed, this isn't sheer agony, but an endlessly sensuous metamorphosis and dissolution, rather Wagnerian in that way, the body flowing into and out of itself, into and out of the very paper it is drawn on. Here Michelangelo's deep interests in and doubts about the malleability of the human image reach their mortal limit.

This may be partly what Francis Bacon meant when he said Michelangelo was mixed up in his mind with Muybridge, the photographer who broke down human action into sequences of split-second images. Michelangelo never draws blood, as Bacon does, but these fluid, fugitive elisions of form and substance are a clear hint towards his art.

Perhaps Bacon is the only modern artist to have truly taken the influence on board - though we mustn't forget Michelangelo's other heirs (via Blake and Fuseli), the graphic masters of the Marvel comics. If it's a straight shot of infectious muscular life you want, there's always the mighty Thor and the Incredible Hulk to keep you going.

To 19 April, Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1 (0171- 839 1377)