Michelangelo – The Last Decades review: What a way for an artist to go out

The British Museum employs immersive techniques to bring the great Renaissance master’s drawings to life in a show that shifts from the intensely powerful to the saccharine before a finale of haggard intensity

Mark Hudson
Tuesday 30 April 2024 12:46 BST
Michelangelo Buonarroti, study for ‘The Last Judgement', Black chalk on paper
Michelangelo Buonarroti, study for ‘The Last Judgement', Black chalk on paper (The Trustees of the British Museum)

Michelangelo for all his immense fame isn’t the most immediately lovable of artists. People crowd to stare in awe at his iconic statue David and mega-fresco The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, but how many of us actually like them? I doubt if today’s artists give the great Renaissance man more than a passing thought from one end of their careers to the other. Michelangelo, nonetheless, is one of the artists who gave rise to the notion of “late style”: the idea that the artist’s vision gets truer and more personal the older they get.

So a show on the great man’s “last decades” should be enough to stop even the most jaded gallery-goer in their tracks, with the prospect of stripping back the hyperbole and getting to everything that’s gritty and still relevant about this hugely important figure.

Worries set in, though, before we’re even in the exhibition, as a gravelly voiced actor intones selections from Michelangelo’s letters in Italian and English, with the artist’s handwriting materialising across a screen overhead. The exhibition has clearly borrowed tactics from those “immersive” multi-sensory art experiences that draw big crowds, but which are generally derided by critics. Is the need here to draw in the non-specialist viewer – or simply desperation at not being able to obtain sufficient works for a proper standalone exhibition?

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