Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Wanna Draw Like Mike

There's a charming controversy brewing over an exhibition at the British Museum. Charming, because it's reassuring to know such matters still occupy the minds and hours of people in this hyperfast age of multi-tasking and blah, blah, blah....what was I saying? Oh, yeah, I find it charming...anyway, moving on.

Essentially, the British Museum has gathered about 80 drawings attributed to Michelangelo for their exhibition
"Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master"

Drawing on the outstanding collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean and the Teyler Museum in Haarlem, Michelangelo Drawings is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow the evolution of some of the world's most celebrated artworks.

The exhibition traces sixty years of Michelangelo's stormy life, from intimate studies made when he was in his early twenties to the visionary Crucifixion scenes carried out shortly before his death.

It reunites material not seen together since the dispersal of the artist's studio more than 400 years ago, offering a wholly different perspective on the defining genius of the Italian Renaissance.
Only thing is, only three of the 80+ drawings in the exhibition are universally considered to be by the master's hand. All the others are questionable. Now that's not news. Folks have debated for years whether the number of extant drawings by Michelangelo is 630 (as declared in Charles de Tolnay's four-volume catalogue of Michelangelo's drawings that appeared between 1975 and 1980) or closer to the 95 attributed to him in 1991 by the Swiss scholar Alexander Perrig, a number we're told is "more in keeping with what Vasari and other contemporary sources tell us of their rarity."

Again, the controversy is not news, and it's even acknowledged in the exhibition's catalog, but as Richard Dorment laments in a fascinating article in Britain's
Daily Telegraph, the exhibition could have been set up to provide a great opportunity to make progress in determining which works were actually by someone else, but they passed (understandable given that the Museums lending the work wouldn't have been too happy to find they had lent a Michelangelo but were having returned a work by one of his assistants, but...truth should trump ego).

Anyway, in the interest of moving the debate forward, I've decided to call upon you. Below are five drawings included in the exhibition. At most three of them could be the universally agreed upon authentic Michelangelo's...and at least two of them are questionable. Can you see any significant differences? There are clues for what to look for in Dorment's article, but look here before you read that and see if anything jumps out at you. (All images from
British Museum website online tour)


Attributed to Michelangelo, Josophat (Iosophat), a red chalk drawing, About 1511-12
Rome, Italy


Attributed to Michelangelo, Design for Laurentian library door and Designs for the Laurentian library door from the vestibule (recetto) and an external window, pen and brown ink over stylus, Florence, Italy, About 1526


Attributed to Michelangelo, Lazarus, a red chalk drawing, Florence, Italy, About 1516


Attributed to Michelangelo, Study for Day, a black chalk drawing, Florence, Italy, About 1524-25


Attributed to Michelangelo, Crucifixion, a drawing in black chalk, Rome, Italy, About 1538-41

I don't know which of these, if any, are the universally accepted Michelangelo's, mind you, but I know at least two are not. Any insights?


Anonymous michael said...

i'd guess 1 and 3 aren't by mike.

3/22/2006 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger dan said...

I'd bet #5 is not. It's too nice/finished looking. It's like too detailed and shaded to be a doodle or a sketch in ol' Mike's notebook. But if someone wanted to make a forgery, it's just what they'd do, because the potential buyer (who the forger just knows is *dying* to by himself a Michelangelo) will look at it and go: damn, that's some lovely shading, that must be authentic.

3/22/2006 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous auvi said...

To me, the only one that is 100% convincingly real is #2.

3/22/2006 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I agree w/ Michael, Dan and Auvi.

The cross-hatching in #1 looks suspect and the line quality seems weak. And what's w/ the Pearlstein-style cropping? (Unless the paper was trimmed afterward by someone else).

Numbers 2 and 3 seem closer to what I've come to expect in terms of line and shading styles, though #3 does seem pretty finished for a sketch.

Number 4 seems unclear in the way the shading of the back is done; it's a bunch of shaded islands of detail but doesn't hold up as a whole.

And #5 does seem very finished and composed for a sketch, especially since most of his drawings would have been studies for frescos (and sculptures, of course) where the figure would have been part of a much larger composition, so it's unlikely he'd put all that effort into centering (and cropping) the cross, and the nice shading at the top for the sky. Plus, what's with the skull? Seems like the person who drew this was trying to tell a story w/ the drawing, not do a study for a painting.

So for me, like Auvi, #2 is the only one that I'm really convinced by. But of course the only Michelangelo drawings I've ever seen are reproductions of works that have been attributed to him, so what do I know...

3/22/2006 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Hans said...

I think 1. and 4. are not by Michelangelo.

3/22/2006 10:23:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

#2 and #5.

Tell me a Renaissance master who draws the musculature, shading and torsion like the Christ in 5. The background characters bear striking similarity to the Last Judgement.

#4, as a contrast, shows none of Michelangelo's coherence.

But hey, I could be wrong.

3/22/2006 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I mean, 2 and 5 are authentic Mick.

3/22/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously this is a shot in the dark, but like Michael, I don't buy 1 and 3. Weak,sort of ugly, oddly-rendered body (esp. 1) . . . doesn't seem right. The others all come closer to whatever vague idea I have of what a Michelangelo drawing should be. How to whittle it down? 5 is more finished, but perhaps because of that the rendering of the Christ figures seems more accomplished than the figures in the other drawings, making it feel right to me. The severity of the architectural sketch seems most clearly right, but that may be because I've seen it reproduced before. I agree with David that the rendering of the back in 4 seems confused, so I suppose I'd consider that one unlikely.

On a more general level, Gary Schwartz had a terrific column a couple years back on similar problems in the world of Rembrandt drawings. Well worth looking at. From his concluding paragraph:

". . . the existing criteria of connoisseurship are incapable of solving the problems involved. The authors seem to want to have their cheesecake and eat it too. They demonstrate that older connoisseurship was unable to establish stable criteria for Rembrandtness, but they stand behind judgments of their own that came into being the same way as those of Hofstede de Groot and Benesch. To judge by the comments of visitors in the attractive new galleries of the Kupferstich-Kabinett, the public was more impressed by the historical insufficiencies of connoisseurship than by its present-day achievements. No one felt solid ground under his feet. At the press conference, one of the journalists asked the logical question: 120, 90, 50, 20: the next term in the sequence is 0, isn't it? Well, actually it isn't, but it will take a revolution in art history to show why not."

3/22/2006 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger chrisjag said...

2 and 4. One of my standards is anatomy. M. was a master at anatomy, and when I see obvious errors, I know they are not his (1).

3/22/2006 11:38:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

older connoisseurship was unable to establish stable criteria for Rembrandtness

I remember reading awhile back about David Geffen suing Neil Young (who was signed to his label) back in the 70s, because the albums he was making weren't real Neil Young albums. Guess he wasn't getting all the Neil Youngness he felt he was paying for.

3/22/2006 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guess he wasn't getting all the Neil Youngness he felt he was paying for.

Or at least, he had a fixed idea of Neil Youngness when that quality was still evolving.

3/22/2006 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

Huh. I seem to be leaving my name and webpage off my comments. Anyway, the long one with the quote from Gary Schwartz and the short one responding to the Neil Youngness comment were me.

-JL (Modern Kicks)

3/22/2006 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

We all knew that. Both comments have that unmistakable JL-ness :)

3/22/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both comments have that unmistakable JL-ness :)

I take it that's code for typos.


3/22/2006 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...

One of the most celebrated works by Michelangleo in the British Museum is probably a copy by another artist. I explain why in an analysis of the Michelangelo Drawings exhibition.

4/06/2006 02:24:00 PM  

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