Michelangelos First Paintingby Thomas Micchelli
Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 16 – September 7, 2009
Francis Bacon has turned 100, and the AARP is beckoning the theoretical girls and boys of the Pictures Generation, but Michelangelo is forever young. With the opening of Michelangelo’s First Painting, in tandem with the glorious Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages, it’s now official that the most vibrant art currently on special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is, at minimum, 520 years old.
Forget the dubious attributions and clumsy fakes that routinely work their way through the Michelangelo-industrial complex, especially the generic crucifix recently fobbed off on the Berlusconi government for $4.2 million; what we’ve got at the Met is the real deal. The scholarly evidence is sound, but more importantly, this small, crisply painted panel exerts the visual magnetism of something truly special.
By now we all know the story, first retailed by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, that Michelangelo, at the age of 12 or 13, painted this phantasmagorical image after Martin Schongauer’s engraving, “Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons,” which the Met has hung (in facsimile) to the right of the Michelangelo for easy reference.
At first blush, what is most striking about the picture is the extreme figure/ground disjunction, such that the darkly rendered saint and demons appear cut out and pasted over the pearlescent sky—one flat plane layered atop another. Scanning back and forth between the panel’s stripped-down frontality and the engraving’s intricate clockwork design, we find ourselves witnessing no less than the birth of modern painting: wielding his immanent sense of Florentine form like a scythe, the boy-wonder clears away all traces of medieval ornament, systematically distilling and abstracting Schongauer’s flowery embellishments into simplified units of color. Only one previous artist—Michelangelo’s hero, the short-lived, sui generis Masaccio—attacked painting with such uncompromising bluntness.
It’s instructive to keep in mind that Schongauer (ca. 1445–1491) was only thirty years older than Michelangelo (1475–1564)—in fact, he was almost exactly contemporary with the younger artist’s maestro, the plodding Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448/49–1494)—yet he seems like a holdover from another epoch. The paradigm shift is so pronounced, and so pertinent to our way of seeing, that despite its clean, graphic precision, the Schongauer, when compared to the Michelangelo, looks like a muddle. The German artist’s picture, a resplendent intertwining of line and pattern (which actually seems quite modern if seen beside a Dürer or Cranach), doesn’t offer the clear directionality that would allow us to grasp its dynamic at a glance; Michelangelo’s does.
It is tempting to hijack the titles commonly attributed to the two works—“Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons” (Schongauer) and “The Torment of Saint Anthony” (Michelangelo)—and recast them as verbal signifiers. The former is passive and narrative, the latter metaphorical and emblematic, which is borne out in their visual construction: the Schongauer invites you to step closer and lose yourself in its swells and hollows, while the Michelangelo hits you from ten feet away with a blast of high-contrast, discordant shapes. Such straightforward power is precisely what defines the modern at each cycle of renewal, from Cezanne and Picasso through Pollock and Stella. In this modestly scaled picture by a pubescent boy, we are seeing it for the first time.
Conjectural as this seems, it is the only way I can explain the strange hold the painting had over me; I stood in front of it for ninety minutes, and if I didn’t have to leave for an appointment, I could have been there for ninety more. It’s not that “The Torment of Saint Anthony” is an unqualified masterpiece. The bottom quarter of the panel feels divorced from the composition’s circular motion, and the landscape painted there merely fills the space without energizing it. The figures are not consistently realized, with the demons on top markedly clumsier and less articulated than the others. This leads me to wonder whether the fledgling painter approached the panel as an exercise in fresco technique—largely completing one section, as with a giornata, before moving to the next (in this case, from the top to the bottom of the interlocking circle and then to the outer ring), only to lose interest in the landscape below (another indication of authenticity, since Michelangelo included only fragments of landscape, if at all, in his later work). Also, the color arrangement is off kilter: the red wing of a demon pulls your eye away from the saint’s black robe, creating a rightward tension that is not counterposed by the patch of muddy raw sienna on the left.
Beyond that, it is clearly a work of juvenilia in intent if not technique. Michelangelo takes an adolescent boy’s delight in the rude and horrific (note the careful rendering of the two-headed demon’s anus/mouth—which is faithful to the original but grossly pronounced), and the work’s emotional depth is skin-deep. The face of the saint, in the teeth of torture and indignity, displays neither anguish nor stoicism, only a mild irritation. It would be a few more years before Michelangelo is capable of the tragic beauty of the “Doni Tondo” and the “Pieta,” two works whose dignified acceptance of fate set forth the artist’s lifetime emotional arc. Still, if the practice of art implies a psychological return to the condition of childhood, it is doubly remarkable to contemplate how consonant Michelangelo’s later work is with that of his apprenticeship, how closely the fierceness of his genius hewed to the wonder of his adolescent fantasies. If his man-child’s spiritual/sensual longings never ceased to torment him, they filled his art with prophetic visions far ahead of his own time, and anybody else’s.