The Dream Exhibition?

This should have been my dream exhibition. Alas, I left feeling rather unfulfilled and upset. To be honest, I had very high expectations. I wanted to see Michelangelo drawings (and lots of them) in an exciting display, which would indulge my Michelangelo passion for hours. However, upon entering the grey and dreary room at the top of the Courtauld Gallery my heart sank. Nonetheless, one should not let atmospheric concerns distract from the masterful skill and beauty of Michelangelo’s creations.

The exhibition was centred around Michelangelo’s drawing Il Sogno (The Dream), executed in c.1533 as a presentation drawing for one of his close friends. Most likely it was made for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young Roman noble whose beauty and intellect captured Michelangelo’s heart. The drawings elusive content encourages personal interpretation, for it is not based on any particular text or legend. The image shows an idealised, nude male reclining on a globe which rests on a plinth filled with masks. Dreamlike figures (traditionally linked with the vices) surround him as a naked winged-spirit descends sounding his trumpet and awakening the youth from his illusions of earthly vices. The drawing is a superb example of Michelangelo’s talent of observing and reconstructing the male form and charging it with his deeply personal neo-platonic beliefs on beauty, love, the soul and the divine. No criticism can ever be levied against Michelangelo’s outstanding artistic ability, and thus I can only quip about the piece’s presentation. As the highlight of the exhibition, this phenomenal drawing should have been afforded greater significance; instead, I stumbled across it as I made my way around the room in a circular motion seven pictures in.

Alongside Il Sogno, the exhibition displays four other celebrated presentation drawings given to Cavalieri by Michelangelo at around the same time; The Punishment of Tityus, The Fall of Phaeton, A Bacchanal of Children and The Rape of Ganymede. The most exceptional of these is The Fall of Phaeton (1533) on loan from the Royal Collection. The pyramidal composition is surmounted by the figure of Jupiter on an eagle who hurls a lightning bolt at Phaeton below. His chariot plunges out of control resulting in a twisting avalanche of horses, who are heading towards his distraught relations below and Eradinus, the reclining river god. The technical mastery of this picture deserves close attention, and one can happily spend time fascinating over the bodies of the horses. The exceptional fore-shortening skill and ability to make unimaginable poses a visual reality is startling.
Less inspiring, however, is the rest of the exhibition which seeks to locate Il Sogno and the presentation drawings in the wider artistic context, by including works on the theme of sleep, dream and allegory, by Dürer, Mantegna and other contemporaries. Whilst this extra body of work increases the size of the exhibition, the relationship between Michelangelo and these pieces is at times hard to identify. Using the exhibition as an excuse to fetch out their sixteenth century drawings, the Courtauld’s “Looking at Michelangelo” display in a separate room (accessible by passing through their permanent fauvist collection) is an unnecessary and uninspiring addition with little relation to the exhibitions key pieces.
The contextual additions take away from the magic of the Michelangelo presentation drawings, and even his resurrection drawings, which we are informed are there because of their “thematic comparisons”, do not visually link the exhibition or give it any sense of coherence.
I feel that the Courtauld should have opted for a more intimate exhibition with a deeper, more focused examination of the key pieces themselves, instead of trying to clutch at distantly related thematic and contextual straws. They could also have injected a bit of colour and vitality in to the display to engage and uplift the viewer. However, the privilege of seeing these pictures is always a pleasure and the chance to see Michelangelo’s most exquisite drawings is a dream one should not pass up.

The Courtauld Gallery, ends 16th May 2010.
10am – 6m. Adults £5, concessions £4.

Holly Bostock (www.beaustock.co.uk)

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