The more John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century art critic, thought about Michelangelo, the less he liked him. He knew there was no way around admitting Michelangelo’s excellence: no one could stand in the Sistine or the Medici Chapel without feeling awe at the unique style, the terribilitá, of the Master.
Yet—what was there? It took Ruskin years of mulling until he thought he had it: Michelangelo was coarse. He was a show-off, a phoney. He exaggerated everything in his figures—everything that might draw attention to them—except for the thing that mattered most: their facial expression. That was what in people you checked out first to see their character, their intentions, their soul. Michelangelo’s figures had no face, no expression, or then a very vulgar one. Look at those angels blowing the horns of Doom in the Last Judgment fresco: those are faces of foolishness.
The Last Judgment (detail) photo released by the Vatican into the public domain here
Look at the face of his Bacchus: it is vulgar, lewd. Even his David’s scowl is phoney, stagey. Those faces, said Ruskin, ruin his great figures and show his own miserly, selfish, vindictive nature. Wasn’t it said that the chief devil at the bottom of the Last Judgment fresco was the portrait of a papal representative that Michelangelo disliked? What kind of artist was Buonarroti? A priest of Beauty must himself be immaculate. A man who lectures on the teachings of nature must be able to learn.
In an essay called Tintoretto and Michelangelo, Ruskin says that Michelangelo easily stole the show from other equally great or even superior artists like Raphael by his exaggerated anatomy and twisting figures. But his message was empty. The figures are mere anatomical studies. Tintoretto knew as much about the human body and could draw it as easily and without fanfare. He was like the sleek, powerful leopard that leaps over an abyss effortlessly and with a perfect calculation of the distance. Showing off what he knew of anatomy never occurred to Tintoretto. A knowledge of anatomy was only one of an artist’s instruments—a means to the end of revealing the soul. What was important was to show man as a spiritual being. Buonarroti was incapable of that.
Ruskin’s way of looking at the artist is far from the modern one. Few would say they expect a work of art to be beneficial to life, to character, or to the community of men, and to lead the viewer to right living. And no one would disqualify a painting as great art because the painter is an alcoholic or a coward or an embezzler. We even expect the artist to be a little odd.
And yet, most great artists went right on preaching all through the twentieth century: See Kandinski and his Theosophy; Orozco and his anti-Capitalist frescoes; Rothko and his mysticism; Chagall and his message of Love. When an artist didn’t preach—take Picasso (excepting the Guernika)—we even MISS a metaphysical or moral message to his work, which sometimes seems empty, cold, only formally curious, like mere decoration.