Head down to Green Park tube station and then stroll along Piccadilly to get to the Royal Academy for a chance to see their first blockbuster exhibition of the New Year. And, rather like the Klimt–Schiele show that’s only recently come to a close, the Academy has decided again to forgo the idea of an in-depth retrospective one-person show focusing on the career of an individual superstar artist and instead brought together works from a pair of competing practitioners – presumably with the intention of indulging in a bit of entertaining speculative compare-and-contrast style of investigatory analysis. On this occasion, however, it’s a very much odder coupling than was the case with the two famous Austrians and their Seccessionistic succession of intimate portrait drawings. And if that show was perhaps just a little bit unbalanced in that it clearly favoured Schiele (whose conceived his drawings as fully finished artworks) above Klimt (whose works were produced more as preparatory sketches for experimenting with the designs of future paintings – and so very much less well-defined) at least there was a good deal of commonality between the pair who were not just friends, collaborators and colleagues but shared mutual influences and interests, and generally enjoyed a developing professional rivalry.
The same cannot be said, however, for the new show, Life Death Rebirth, which throws together works by two artists, Michaelangelo Buonarrotia and Bill Viola, who, on first sighting, could hardly be more dissimilar. It’s not just that they are separated in the time-space continuum by about five hundred years and four thousand miles – all the way from Italian Renaissance to New York Conceptualism – but the former was a painter, sculptor and draughtsman while the latter produces works in the time-based media of film and video.
So, is there a sensible artistic logic behind the idea of bringing this particular pair together? Well, I suppose from a slightly cynical marketing point of view, the hope is that the show will have a broader appeal and so attract a greater audience than would have been the case had two separate smaller shows have been staged instead. That the older demographic, who might be deterred at the thought of being presented with hours of conceptualist video displays, will nevertheless be lured into the show by the thought of being able to see a string of exquisite sketches from the hand of one of the greatest, most famous and revered of all the old art masters. While a more adventurous set of less crusty art lovers, who may well be unmoved by the offer of seeing chalky renderings of antique mythologies, will be eager to see a substantial collection of filmic offerings by an artist generally accepted to be the formative godfather of those who work by manipulating the flickering imagery of televisual projection and video installationisms.
As for the more nuanced, theoretically balanced and intellectually resonant argument for showing work by Mike and Bill together, I think this probably rests along the lines that, while history grows, societies change and technological advances separate the experiences of peoples across the ages – whether they be kings or commoners, brahmins or buffoons, stinking rich or smelly poor – there are still some concerns that remain naggingly immutably common to all humanity. And that chief among the eternal unfathomable mysteries that are shared among all cultures and all eras, are those relating to life and death – where do we come from and whence are we destined? – subjects that have been the unending source of speculation for religionists and philosophers and a continual source of inspiration for artists across the ages. Except, of course, that during the past secular century or so most creative types have tended to shy away from any direct form of entanglement with religious doctrines and dogmas, whether as propagandist proponents of one particular credo or another, or antagonistic atheistical denouncers of the whole superstitious circus. Which is not to say that people have no interest in matters of spiritual symbolism but that it’s rare to find any artists nowadays who attempt to delve into such deep and murky waters. All of which circumlocutory meandering finally leads back to the screens of Bill Viola for he is indeed an exception and one of the few contemporary artists who has seemingly found metaphysical mysteries to be powerful providers of inspiration for the production of his own large scale video artworks.
For Michaelangelo, of course, the choice of subject matter was much more restricted by the conventions of the day and, on a practical level, the need to satisfy the demands of patronage which, essentially meant, the Vatican and other church authorities. Although, as it happens, the dozen or so drawings featured in the current display were mainly produced as gifts for friends or else for the amusement of the artist himself and so perhaps reveal a more personalised insight into the mind of the artist than those produced when working under the instruction of others. Either way, they still comprise a fairly familiar mixture of religious episodes and scenes taken from the stories of classical mythology.
So, how do the two fare when brought together? Well, perhaps surprisingly and rather counter-intuitively, I think it’s fair to say that the pairing actually works out really quite well. And whereas I don’t suppose Michaelangelo – looking down from his posthumous position on the heights of the pantheon – will have been very bothered at the thought of sharing exhibition space with an experimentalist from the new world, Viola must have been utterly enraptured at the opportunity to be seen engaging with such elevated company. Although, having said that, I can’t help thinking he must also have had some concern that the disparity in reputation between the two might be so hugely cavernous as to risk rendering the lesser of the parties so crushingly outclassed as to be open to outright ridicule. As it is, the two come out sharing the honours fairly evenly, albeit that to achieve this equality of experience requires vast room-size projections from one and small sketchbook samplers from the other.
As for how the pair fair when it comes to their respective attempts to convey the eternal wonderment relating to the gift of life and the uncertainties of the afterlife, well, both have their own individual characteristic artistic tropes on which they rely. And for Viola it’s not just the enormous scale of his installations that give them their sense of presence, the darkness into which they’re projected helps add an ambient atmosphere of authority and revelation, and there’s his favourite trick of using slow-motion timing which then requires his audience to linger and look at this subjects, trepidatiously waiting for whatever denouement he has in store. He also has a great fondness for using water in his most memorable works: whether it’s the naked man who slowly floats into view and then sinks back into the dark depths below; or else the other figure who is drenched by a cleansing torrential deluge before ascending into the heavens above. I suppose both are meant to be read as secular representations of the transient nature of life and they certainly have a kind of simplistic fascination that compels one to watch. On the down side, for me at least, all the works I’ve so far described have a tendency to lapse towards the portentous, although I can well imagine that those with a less jaded soul than mine might well gain some sense of spiritual enlightenment. In the end, I think perhaps I preferred the less laboured works, those which weren’t quite so deliberately contrived to suggest a sense of their own profundity So, I quite liked the film loop showing a man jumping off a springboard and instead of plummeting into the pool below finds himself frozen in mid-air before gradually fading from existence, and also the room with the sleeping man whose peaceful slumberance is intermittently interrupted by projected excerpts from his dreams – walking in a darkened forest, watching waves crash on a beach and various other examples of the surreal reveries that commonly fill all of our own nightly soap opera stories
As for Michaelangelo, well, there’s not much point in praising the technical facility of his drawing and compositional skills which are already rather well known but I’d be disingenuous if I pretended to declare myself a true fan of his. I have to confess, I’m something of an artistic apostate and tend to side with those YBA’s of the 19th century, the Pre-Raphaelites, who complained of finding the works of some of the great Renaissance masters a bit, well, over-the-top and found the more rugged honesty of their less archly sophisticated predecessors altogether more appealing. Frankly, I tend to find the muscularity of Michaelangelo’s models more than just a little bit absurd. And that’s not just the ludicrous homoerotic beefcake males with their bulging biceps, taut calypygous fundaments and hugely inflated abs and pecs that seem to cram there way into all of his drawings, but also their female equivalents, who also seem to have overdosed on testosterone tablets and super-steroidal supplements such that their breasts have all the unrealistic rigidity of pairs of freshly bisected grapefruits. And whether it’s Hercules labouring, Phaeton falling or Christ’s crucifixion, deposition, lamentation or resurrection, I tend to find myself distracted by the ridiculousness of the anatomical inflations and adipodal excesses and so miss out on experiencing the sense of transcendent wonderfulness which I’m sure must be discernible by those of a more forgiving nature.