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Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth

Artworks from two very different artists, working almost five centuries apart in radically different media, come together to create an artistic exchange at the Royal Academy in London

Tondo showing Virgin and Child by Michelangelo
Taddei Tondo (The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John), c1504-05, Michelangelo

This exhibition pairs the pioneering video artist, Honorary Royal Academician, Bill Viola (b. 1951) with Michelangelo (1475 -1564), one of art history’s most important figures. The former is the creator of video installations, the latter, artist, sculptor, architect and poet of the High Renaissance. Two artists, who, the show’s curators argue, share a deep preoccupation with the nature of human experience and existence.

Bill Viola/Michelangelo is subtitled Life, Death, Rebirth. This is the show’s leitmotif. By pairing major video installations from Viola’s long career with some of Michelangelo’s greatest drawings, on loan from the Royal Collection - and the RA’s prized Taddei Tondo marble relief - the curators are aiming to create an artistic exchange, a ‘dialogue’ between the two. Not that they are placing one artist on a par with the other, the RA stresses, but to help us to find deeper meaning in both.

Does this approach work? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Not necessarily. But let’s look at some of its parts.

This is the first exhibition at the Royal Academy that is largely devoted to video art, and it has been organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust. It comprises 12 major video installations by Viola, from 1977 to 2013, shown alongside 15 works by Michelangelo that include 14 of his highly finished drawings - beautiful works considered to be the high point of Renaissance drawing - as well as the Royal Academy’s Taddei Tondo, a marble relief believed to have been carved from 1504 to 1505 during Michelangelo’s first period in Florence - and the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti in a UK collection.

Photo of video display showing a baby, man and old person
Nantes Triptych, 1992, Bill Viola

Viola’s immersive sound and video installations are unquestionably theatrical, spectacular, possibly mesmerising. But here, they don't move me. Apart that is from his 1992 Nantes Triptych, a profound work consisting of three screens (taking its lead from Renaissance triptychs) that individually portray a woman giving birth, Viola’s own mother on her deathbed, and between them a panel with a nebulous figure floating in a watery half-light. The soundtrack is salient, literally breath-taking, life-giving breathing and crying to one side and the soft hiss of the respirator to the other: the beginning, middle, and end of life. It is uncomfortable but real, filmed in real time, and crucially it works as a moving, meaningful, stand-alone artwork.

On the wall opposite the video, with birth and death sounds in our ears as we turn, we see Michelangelo’s tender chalk drawings emphasising humanity and its anguishes: the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, a woman tragically aware of her child’s mortality and in The Lamentation over the Dead Christ pitifully cradling her dead son. Placed between these drawings the marble Taddei Tondo, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, shows the goldfinch fluttering from the hand of the infant St John the Baptist, implying the presence of death within life.

Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Waterfall Under a Mountain), 2005, Bill Viola

In Viola’s meditations on life, death, and rebirth, water plays a powerful and recurrent part; his protagonists, clothed or unclothed, are mysterious. In The Dreamers, 2013, submerged figures, fully clothed, impassive, unmoved, unmoving, sink and rise oh so slowly as tiny bubbles trickle sporadically from them to the surface. In Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Waterfall Under a Mountain), 2005, water pours down as bodies fall and rise out of view, “in different ways conjuring the body’s final journey and the passage of the spirit, in obscurity or in glory.” Elsewhere, it is fire that’s the elemental force - as in the monumental five-screen installation Five Angels for the Millennium, 2001, that takes over the main gallery with images of fire, birth, ascending and departing angels, and at the show’s dramatic conclusion, Fire Woman, 2005.

Michelangelo explores similar allegorical struggles in life in his drawings of The Labours of Hercules and The Fall of Phaeton, loaned from the Royal Collection Trust.

The New York-born Viola has long been enthralled by the spiritual and emotional core of Michelangelo’s art, and spent some of his formative years in Florence. And after a visit in 2006 to the Print Room at Windsor Castle to see the Michelangelo drawings he had known in reproduction since his youth, the idea for this show was born.

Taste is a highly individual matter. It’s a bold idea for an exhibition to show a contemporary artist alongside Michelangelo. I found that I navigated the exhibition by almost treating its two parts as separate entities; not that this was intentional, but natural gravitation. Clearly there was crossover - in the physical, emotional, spiritual, transcendent qualities of the artworks - but on the whole, the juxtaposition of Viola’s video installations and Michelangelo’s vital drawings in the same or consecutive rooms, however atmospheric, do neither many favours. The exhibition will divide opinion, however, and some may find the juxtapositions moving. But I did not need them, collectively to make me think deeper. I prefer to come to my own conclusions about the works and their emotional impact.

Sketch of Christ by Michelangelo
The Risen Christ, c.1532-3, Michelangelo

In the final galleries several works more directly consider mortality and the possibility of rebirth. Here are some of Michelangelo’s most poignant drawings, including two Crucifixions from the final years of his life. In the 1530s, Michelangelo had drawn the Lamentation repeatedly, private acts of meditation. Thirty years later, in his late eighties he drew the Crucifixion again and again, his line indeterminate: personal explorations of the passage of life towards death.

These and his poem displayed on the wall were indeed moving: “My life’s journey has finally arrived / after a stormy sea, in a fragile boat / at the common port, through which all must pass..."

All in all, aspects of this show were for me too didactic, contrived; nonetheless it’s worthwhile to enjoy the works for their own sake. To see Michelangelo’s brilliant beautiful presentation drawings - The Resurrection, 1532, above all - is reason enough.


Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth

Royal Academy, London

26 January - 31 March 2019

For more information CLICK HERE


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