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Michelangelo’s “Phaeton” from the “Presentation Drawings”

Inspired by my research for my post about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, I have been ruminating about his connection to the 21st century with lessons presented by this iconic artist.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is considered to be one of the two artists (the other was Leonardo da Vinci, his rival) cited for the very creation of the Italian Renaissance. Considering his prodigious quantity  of work in many fields during the length of his long life, there is also added a huge volume of correspondence and surviving sketches. He was a versatile painter, sculptor, draftsman, poet, as well as an architect and an engineer.

I have not numbered these musings about the variety of lessons inspired by the work and life of Michelangelo as I did not wish to create a sense of hierarchy. Each person will choose (or not) from among the lessons those that are important and insightful for their particular motivation and revelation.

“The Punishment of Tityus,” 1532, by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo Lesson: Work Hard at Hard Work —

“If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” — Michelangelo

“If you knew how much work went into it, you would not call it genius.”

Michelangelo was a hard worker and he focused on each of his many and varied endeavors. Today, people tend to think of him as a “super-artist”– an artist with magical powers that are otherworldly and not repicatable. But as Thomas Alva Edison observed — genius consists of one percent inspiration with the additional  of ninety-nine percent of perspiration.  A more accurate assessment is that Michelangelo worked incredibly hard every day. He worked in pain. Working on the Sistine Chapel was  a brutal experience for him because the scaffolding 65 feet above the floor was curved. He had to work with his back bent and his chin pointing toward the ceiling. The paint dripping into his eyes ruined his vision during that project. Yet he continued to work almost every day.

Michelangelo is truly great — but the essence of his many successes derives from his adherence to the continual application of effort despite circumstances.

Ask yourself if there is a method to learn to love to work and to increase your effort in your art and life while still honoring your self-care (more on this in another lesson.)

“The Dream of Human Life” — part of the “Presentation Drawings”

Michelangelo Lesson: Dedicate Yourself to a Big Project —

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” — Michelangelo

“I hope that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” 

We currently live within a different economic structure than during the Renaissance.  There are no powerful patron families to support artists and their art education (such as the de Medici family palace where Michelangelo, as a teenager, first started to sculpt,) nor political potentate popes (Pope Julius ll who commissioned the Sistine Chapel and later, between 1535 and 1541, Pope Paul lll ordered Michelangelo’s to paint his version of the “Last Judgement” over the altar on the back wall,) nor proud city-states to order a commanding statue (the city-state of Florence with the statue of “David.”) An artist might argue that if it not economically feasible to dedicate one’s time and materials to a large far-reaching project or concentrate one’s work to explore within a grand theme.

The best quality in our economic situation is that we are not “under another’s thumb” as Michelangelo expressed in one of his poems. We generally do not have to deal with the changing whims of powerful patrons. We are free to formulate our personal, unique direction and discretion in our work.

Try musing upon a variation of a goal setting tool — is there a big project that you would be actually be astonished if you completed?  You do not have to set that as a potential goal, but it might help start you to consider a broader range of possibilities.

Our current culture has accustomed us to instantaneity, micro-wave rapidity, and results in a general sense of impatience — that things take too long and ought to be resolved within the span of an hour television program.

Michelangelo, at 23 years old, carved the “Pieta” in two years.  He chiseled three years on the “David.”  The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel entailed a labor of four years.

Some times a masterwork simply takes time — and there is not a shortcut to accomplishment.

“The Risen Christ” — also considered to be a part of the “Presentation Drawings”

Michelangelo Lesson: Find Your Inspiration in Your Work

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” 

This quote comes from a story from the period of the carving of the “David.” A child asks Michelangelo in effect what was he doing. So, I believe that Michelangelo was uttering a metaphor about his own creative life.

Consider that your inspiration may lay within the scope of your work — rather than some variety of external mythic source of inspiration.  Many people mistakenly believe that inspiration is some outward outside source over which one does not have control.

You may come to see that the angel of inspiration is inside you. It is our responsibility to explore how to free this angel.

“The Rape of Gandymede” — from the “Presentation Drawings”

Michelangelo Lesson: Maintain and Honor Your Standards

-remark before stripping a whole section of the Sistine Chapel he was working on…
“If the wine is not good, then throw it out!” 

Early in the painting of the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo had troubles with a mold that started on some of his already completed panels.  There is a debate if this was the reasons of the positioning of the damp building near water, or Michelangelo’s inexperience with the media of fresco painting, or some combination of the two factors. He was strongly discouraged about starting again from scratch. But Michelangelo asserted his own level of standards with the quality of his work.

Consider ways to maintain and cleave to your own standards of quality, presentation and preservation of your work, or even if there are ways you might increase this reality.

” The Fall of Phaton” — from the “Presentation Drawings”

Michelangelo Lesson: Create More, Critique Less

“Critique by creating.” 

“Why do you send fools to judge my work?” 

“It is necessary to keep one’s compass in one’s eyes and not in the hand, for the hands execute, but the eye judges.” 

Michelangelo maintained his own standards of finishing and even an early quest for perfection. (His understanding of seemingly earthly perfection changed over his many years of experience in art making.) But he knew that the process of creation was fundamentally different from the process of judgement and the function and timing of a critique.

Many artists mistake their own ongoing critical views of their work in process as a function of creating.  They are actually two separate entities.

ideal Face — likely from the “Presentation Drawings”

Michelangelo Lesson: Simplify to Express the Essence

“Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.”  

“With few words I shall make thee understand my soul.” 

In the progress of the sections of the Sistine Chapel, one can see how Michelangelo simplified the number of figures to impart the drama of the section of the story of Genesis. He learned to communicate the essence without extraneous additions.  In his later sculptural work, he changed his orientation about finishing.  His “Slave” sculptures still emerge slowly from the element of rough hewn rock and are all the most expressive.

This relates to the adage of “Less is more.”

Think how you might refine the various components of your art, to trim the extaneous to better focus your vision.

“Archers shotting at a Herm”

Michelangelo Lesson: Discount Doubt —

-to his assistant…
“I am no artist – please come and help me.”  — Michelangelo

“Faith in oneself is the best and safest course.” — Michelangelo

We all may have bouts of doubt.  Even Michelangelo had doubt.  He doubted he was capable of the task of painting the Sistine Chapel, but undertook the commission despite his misgiving about the entire project. He created an enduring iconic environment within the arched vault of the building that continues to overwhelming inspire viewers.

But just because doubt might show up at the door does not require you to then entertain it and ask it to sit down for supper. Remember that you are in the same league as Michelangelo — the league of artists and those engaged in the constructive creation of new realities and future dreams. You posses both similar limitations and possibilities.

“The Pieta” — another “Presentation Drawing”

This is Part 1 of possible lessons inspired by Michelangelo.  Part 2 will appear in the next installment.

I am positive that there are many more lessons other than the ones covered in these posts.  I welcome any and all additions to contribute to the treasures of Michelangelo.

Karina Nishi Marcus

(Michelangelo’s “Presentation Drawings,” created in the 1530’s, were named because they were created as gift to a young Roman aristocrat who was learning to draw. Drawing was a respectable accomplishment for an Italian aristocrat. These were a sort of love offering by the artist who was then in his 50’s to the teenager renowned for his beauty and cultural refinement. There still exists a documented series of correspondence, including poems, between the two.)

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