Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tetchy Mutant Ninja Genius

A recent piece for the South China Morning Post's Rewind column.

When I was a kid, my parents had an impressively hefty coffee table tome purporting to contain all the world’s artistic masterpieces. I would pore over it for hours, drinking in the visceral horrors of Brueghel the Elder, the chiaroscuro canvases of Rembrandt, the luminous Renaissance art of Titian, Raphael and Tintoretto, and the unequalled imagination of Leonardo da Vinci. But time and again I was drawn back to the stunning fold-outs of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

For something separates his art from the rest, and even though he considered himself a sculptor not a painter, his frescoes on the soaring vaulted arches of the Pope’s private chapel stand alone as perhaps the greatest single creative masterpiece the world has ever seen. What at first looks like a confusion of writhing flesh reveals itself to be a peerless tableau of human emotion, from the unsullied innocence of creation to the eternal agonies of the fall from grace.

Watched by a profusion of prophets and sibyls and biblical notables, the central frescoes depict in Michelangelo’s inimitable style the travails of Noah, God dividing the light and dark, the heavens and the waters, the sun and the planets, and of course the most iconic image of all, God creating Adam, fingers outstretched, at once impassive and impassioned, white beard swirling like storm clouds, somehow seeing all the pain ahead for his beloved creation.

A far more flawed creation is Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a sprawling epic starring Charlton Heston at his craggiest and grumpiest as a Michelangelo beset by dark nights of the soul and a rocky relationship with the bellicose Pope Julius II. Reed attempts to lay bare the creative process of a genius, and partly succeeds.

Heston’s tetchiness might partly be ascribed to the inch-long chunk of rebar he wedged up his hooter in an attempt to ape the Florentine’s famously twisted nose, broken by a jealous childhood rival. As many critics have noted, the film is as generous with the agony as it is mean with the ecstasy.
The film spans the heyday of the Renaissance, perhaps the greatest flowering of creativity the world has ever seen. We meet Michelangelo’s rival Raphael, depicted here as an insipid figure waiting in the wings for the great man to fail, and some of the Medicis, the period’s great secular patrons.          
When his first attempt at the ceiling ends with him drunkenly destroying two apostles, Michelangelo disappears into the hills of Carrara to work with the marble miners. The Pope mounts a massive manhunt, and the artist flees higher into the mountains.

It is here that the most powerful scene in the film takes place, one which should be laughably cheesy but somehow achieves a transcendent beauty. Stumbling out of a vaulted cave with swirling ceiling shapes which hint at the artist’s sinuous bodies, Michelangelo is confronted by an amazing cloud formation which we see form itself in his mind’s eye into God creating Adam. With the swelling score and some slick cinematography, we are transported for a moment onto the highest plane where genius dwells.
Alas, from there the film becomes a rather drawn out affair, all spilled paint pots and dodgy scaffolding and interminable rows with the Pope. After the scene with the clouds, the final ‘reveal’ of the ceiling is almost an anticlimax .
Creativity is an ephemeral and elusive thing. Most artists know it for the briefest of seasons. Michelangelo was blessed – and perhaps cursed – with a full live lived at the headiest heights. This film affords the briefest glimpse of his genius, and for that we can be grateful.

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