- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005



By James Hall

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30,

312 pages, illus.


Just when you think the discipline of art history is beyond recovery — as the latest race-sex-gender “deconstruction” of an artist lands with a dispiriting thud on one’s desk — comes James Hall’s “Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body,” a breath of fresh intellectual air if there ever was one.

This is a searching and in places profoundly revealing inquiry into the meaning of Michelangelo’s art, which the author approaches synoptically — in terms of a number of themes or issues — rather than one more chronological survey. Where postmodern art historians fit the work of art to their preformed conclusions, Mr. Hall’s approach is inductive: He starts with the art object, asks himself questions about it, then follows where his thinking and research lead. This is what art historians have traditionally done, only these days it sounds radical.

Mr. Hall, a freelance art historian whose Mr. Hall, a freelance art historian whose previous book was “The World as Sculpture: The Changing Status of Sculpture From the Renaissance to the Present Day,” begins by declaring (quite correctly) that we have been so blinded by Michelangelo’s “brilliance and…ubiquity” that it’s become impossible to “see” his work with any clarity. To clear the aesthetic cobwebs from in front of his eyes and ours, he poses a number of leading questions: Why are Michelangelo’s Madonnas so remote and aloof, given that they are witnesses to every parent’s worst nightmare, the death of a child? What can we learn about Michelangelo’s faith from his repeated depictions of Christ? What do certain works mean? This proves to be a handy way of opening up the master’s thinking.

Take the matter of the aloof Madonnas. Mr. Hall notes that unlike other Renaissance and medieval artists, who depicted the Virgin Mary looking at her son and sometimes even into his eyes, Michelangelo never shows the two protagonists in this most profound of all dramas with their gazes meeting. Mary often looks into space distractedly, as if she isn’t really aware of what Christ is doing — even when she is nursing him. Almost the only sculpture in which Mary shows any reaction is the Pieta in Rome, where she looks down with an expression of sadness at the dead Christ lying across her lap and opens out her left hand in a gesture of resignation.

Mr. Hall isn’t the first person to raise this question. Several years ago the noted art historian and Michelangelo scholar Leo Steinberg, when asked by ARTnews magazine what question he would most like to put to the artist, replied, “Mike, tell us about your mother.” He felt (so he told me later) that the meaning of Michelangelo’s Madonnas was somehow to be explained by the artist’s relationship — or lack of one — with his own mother, who died when he was six.

Nonetheless, Mr. Hall comes up with an intriguing explanation, one he summarizes as relating to “Michelangelo’s personal mythology of stone.”

Drawing on such diverse sources as earlier medieval and Renaissance art, the artist’s tales of his own infancy, the poetry of Dante (in particular a group of four poems called “rime petrose”or “stony poems” which Dante addressed to an aloof object of his affection) and the sculptures themselves (which often show the Madonna seated on or near stones or rocks), Mr. Hall argues that the artist set out to redefine the image of the Madonna in art. In place of the deeply emotional and endlessly forgiving Marys of earlier art, Michelangelo, fittingly for a carver of marble, adopted the visual metaphors of stone — harshness and obduracy among them — in order to convey to the viewer a Mary made of sterner stuff, someone who, whatever her shortcomings in the nurturing department, was more than prepared to endure the trials that God had in store for her.

Besides eye-opening interpretations of individual works of art, Mr. Hall throughout the book manages to come up with interesting insights about aspects of Michelangelo that we’ve tended to take for granted or overlook, then use these as the springboard to make a larger point about Michelangelo’s art and, even, the art of our time. Thus, it’s been a standard element of Michelangelo lore that what makes the artist’s figures different from those of every previous artist was dissection: Beginning in the 1490s, when he was in his 20s, Michelangelo cut up dead bodies in order to study their musculature and skeletal structure. These studies produced an art of greater authenticity and emotional power than ever before.

True enough, says Mr. Hall. But he wonders just what good this would actually have done. Michelangelo’s figures are in motion or at least flexing their muscles as if on the brink of motion, whereas the muscles of a dead body are flaccid. Nonetheless, the practice, he argues, the violence inherent in this gruesome activity was central to Michelangelo’s aesthetic — pounding away at a block of marble with a hammer and chisel is another aspect of it. “Violence was central to Michelangelo’s conception of himself as an artist, with anatomy its main focus. As such, he is the first great example of a peculiarly modern type of artist, one for whom destruction is inextricably linked to creation.”

One more virtue of this book is the author’s willingness to venture his own opinions about particular works. This is highly unusual in a volume of art history since the profession stresses explication over judgment — the latter, in the view of art historians, regarded as a kind of heresy only to be practiced by those lower life forms, critics.

Yet it’s too rarely recognized that an author’s passionate opinion about a work of art can be just as helpful to the reader as any amount of dispassionate analysis, and Mr. Hall’s book is a case in point. He is unafraid to say, for example, that the Last Judgment fresco is a bit of a mess, where “Michelangelo’s inability, or reluctance, to make a peaceful, orderly or serene crowd is given startling expression.” The artist’s “ambition surpassed his ability to execute” the complicated figure grouping of his late “Pieta,” he says, referring to the one now in Florence Cathedral in which the figure of Nicodemus, who is holding up Christ’s body, is a self portrait. And finally, the Medici Chapel, with its tombs of Giulio and Lorenzo Medici and its famous allegories of Night and Day, Dawn and Dusk, is “his greatest and most probing work — more absorbing and intense even than the Sistine Ceiling.”

A book like this comes along all too rarely. It teaches you about art, but it also teaches you how to look. Mr. Hall’s keen eye and flair for description emphasize the need to look closely and encourage you to do so — he is forever drawing your attention to a telling detail or something in front of your eyes that might easily be overlooked on the first pass. For example: How many arms does the figure of “Night” in the Medici Chapel have? (Answer: Fewer than you think.) But it’s also a book one wants to read as much for the lively, open-minded company of the author himself. As much as for its many insights, its pleasure derives from being privy to his receptive temperament — his openness to what Michelangelo’s art has to say — his observant nature and his agile, wide-ranging mind.

Eric Gibson is the Leisure & Arts Features Editor of The Wall Street Journal.

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