“Art et Liberté: Egypt’s Surrealists,” By Charles Shafaieh

“Art et Liberté: Egypt’s Surrealists”

By Charles Shafaieh


In March 1938, the Egyptian poet and critic Georges Henein and a small group of friends disrupted a lecture in Cairo given by the Alexandria-born Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti, who was an outspoken supporter of Mussolini. Six months later, Henein, along with the Egyptian writer Anwar Kamel, the Italian anarchist painter Angelo de Riz, and thirty-four other artists, writers, journalists, and lawyers, signed the manifesto “Vive l’Art Dégénéré!” (“Long Live Degenerate Art!”) that would inaugurate Art et Liberté, a short-lived but influential artists’ collective based in Egypt that is the focus of an illuminating exhibition currently at the Tate Liverpool, in Britain, covering the years 1938–1948. Printed in Arabic and French, with a facsimile of Guernica on its reverse, the declaration was a direct challenge to the previous year’s Nazi-organized exhibition “Entartete ‘Kunst’” (“Degenerate ‘Art’”), which presented art by Chagall, Kandinsky and other modern artists, largely Jewish, that the Nazi Party deemed decadent, morally reprehensible or otherwise harmful to the German people.

Internationalist in orientation and opposed as much to fascist-endorsed art as to the Egyptian academy’s own nationalist-minded aesthetics that resurrected ancient symbols in the name of “Egyptianness,” the group declared that it was “mere idiocy and folly to reduce modern art… to a fanaticism for any particular religion, race, or nation.” Surrealism—in its rejection of tyranny in any form and by championing uninhibited freedom of expression—was a fitting counterpoint that the group believed could also be harnessed to bring about social change.

Members of Art et Liberté at their second exhibition of independent art, Cairo, 1941. The Younan Family Archive/Thomas Lang

Though Art et Liberté was universalist in its philosophical convictions, the writing and visual art produced for the group’s five exhibitions and multiple publications—of which more than a hundred works and a similar number of archival materials are on display at the Tate—responded to specific Egyptian concerns. The Egyptian group’s work was no mere imitation of that of André Breton and his associates in the Parisian Surrealist scene, which tends to be regarded by critics as the movement’s one and true home. Rather, Egypt had its own distinct history and a style of Surrealism that, some argued, stretched into its ancient past. Painter, writer, and founding member of Art et Liberté Kamel el-Telmisany responded to public criticism of the group that it was contaminating Egyptian culture with European perversions: “Many of the Pharaonic sculptures… are surrealist… Much Coptic art is surrealist. Far from aping a foreign artist movement, we are creating art that has its origins in the brown soil of our country and which has run through our blood ever since we have lived in freedom and up until now.”

He and the painter and writer Ramses Younan criticized Dalí and Magritte as too premeditated, and the practitioners of automatic writing and drawing as insufficiently socially-engaged. They instead advocated for what they called Free Art, or Subjective Realism—an active mining of the unconscious fused with local imagery that would be familiar to Egyptians, but not fetishistic or nationalistic (a crime that Henein leveled against the Contemporary Art Group that succeeded Art et Liberté). The results were eclectic, as often Expressionist in style as overtly Surrealist, and occasionally humorous, such as Étienne Sved and Abduh Khalil’s irreverent parodies of Pharaonic symbols, which included transforming a pyramid into a chaise lounge.

Abduh Khalil: Untitled, circa 1949.

Egypt in the late 1930s was a nation already deeply divided, with fascism’s growing appeal and Britain hindering any opportunity of national autonomy. As war approached, its economy stalled and poverty increased sharply as thousands of troops from across the Commonwealth descended on the country. The disturbed times found expression in images such as the bloodshot eye embedded within a mass of bulbous tentacles in Laurent Marcel Salinas’s Naissance (1944); the hirsute tree in Samir Rafi’s Nudes (1945) standing before faceless men and women either dead or running from an unidentifiable threat; and the naked girl, lost both to a pool of flames and a menacing giant, in Inji Efflatoun’s Girl and Monster (1941).

The presence of 140,000 soldiers in 1941 in Cairo alone caused a surge in prostitution in the capital, which was replicated in other major cities like Alexandria. This prompted a number of the artists shown here to depict emaciated and fragmented female bodies in paintings devoid of either eroticism or moralism. In Anwar Kamel’s untitled nudes, the women’s organs and bones appear visible through their skin as the earth seems prepared to swallow them. El-Telmisany’s Untitled (Wounds) (1940) is even more devastating: two figures, a naked woman and a clothed androgynous person, are bound together by each having a bloodied hand nailed to a tree, which may be a symbolic reference to the coarse violence of a transactional sexual encounter or the effects of sexually transmitted diseases. Others, such as Rateb Seddik’s haunting Liliane Brok et son orchestre aveugle (1940) and El-Telmisany’s Nude with Arm (1940) suggest raw corporeality in the paint itself, which, as in many Egon Schiele portraits, often appears, close up, like thinly-smeared feces or congealed blood.

Younan’s 1939 untitled painting evoking Nut, the goddess of the sky, exemplifies Art et Liberté’s unique interpretation of Surrealism and subtle use of Egyptian cultural symbols. Though typically covered in stars and bent onto her hands with the world contained inside her arched body, Younan’s female figure looks contorted by physical abuse—perhaps at the hands of one of the figures walking into the distance of the De Chirico-esque empty, arid landscape. Younan’s figure lacks any trace of Orientalist exoticism and nativist myth-making, unlike British Surrealist Roland Penrose’s 1938 drawing Lee as Nut (modeled nude by Lee Miller, the American photographer, friend of Art et Liberté, and Penrose’s lover) and his follow-up Egypt (1939), in which Nut envelopes a dreamy and inviting desert scene—both of which hang nearby. Despite Penrose’s relationship with the group, these works convey the difference between those entranced, even unconsciously, by Egypt’s imagery and those, like Younan, who had no interest in romanticizing his country.

Ramses Younan: Untitled, 1939. H.E. Sheikh Hassan/M. A. AL Thani Qatar.

As curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath emphasize in their captions throughout the exhibition, Art et Liberté exemplified Surrealism’s global cosmopolitan character—after all, Dalí, Ernst, and many other prominent participants were not French. The group disrupted rigidity and calcification of any sort—whether of the Egyptian academy or of their fellow artists, such as those who, in 1946, founded the Contemporary Arts Group that Henein soon denounced as bolstering what he considered the tyranny of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalism. As Henein said of Nasser, “new Fascists in uniform” had taken control once again.

The anti-authoritarian ethos of the Art et Liberté group has lived on: the contemporary Egyptian graffiti-artist and muralist Ammar Abo Bakr, a critical voice during the 2011 revolution, paraphrased a quote from Henein in a recent piece in Berlin honoring the activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh who, in 2015, was shot by police during a peaceful protest: “Revolution without despair nor hope.”


“Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948)” is at the Tate Liverpool through March 18, 2018.

Feature image, top: Marcel-Laurent Salinas: Birth, 1944. Marcel Laurent Salinas Estate/Image courtesy RoGallery.com


By Charles Shafaieh, Reprint from The New York Review of Books, 3 February 2018, © 1963-2018 NYREV, Inc.

“Iron Age Temple in Syria Devastated by Turkish Air Raids,” By Claire Voon

“Iron Age Temple in Syria Devastated by Turkish Air Raids”

‘The ancient temple complex of Ain Dara was partially destroyed by the Turkish military as they continue to attack Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of Syria’

By Claire Voon


Air raids by Turkish warplanes on the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northern Syria have partially destroyed the ancient temple complex of Ain Dara, renowned for its finely carved reliefs. Built in the iron age by the Arameans, sometime between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE, the site is also notable for its structural similarities to King Solomon’s Temple — the first temple in ancient Jerusalem — as described in the Bible. News of the air strikes, which occurred on Friday, were confirmed by the Britain-based war monitor, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Syria’s antiquities department.

Lion at Ain Dara, photographed in 2009 (photo by Verity Cridland via Wikipedia)

According to the BBC, the Observatory estimates that about 60% of the temple was destroyed. Photographs of the site taken after the air strikes show its courtyard, originally paved with flagstones, covered with rubble. The temple itself stood on a limestone platform and was lined with basalt blocks sculpted to resemble lions and sphinxes; near its entrance, carved into the stone floor, was also a series of giant footprints, which some scholars believe were intended to represent traces of deities who resided in the sanctuary. The temple complex was first excavated by archaeologists in 1955, after they found a massive basalt lion on the site.

Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums condemned the attack in a statement, saying that it “reflects the hatred and barbarism of the Turkish regime against the Syrian identity and against the past, present and future of the Syrian people.

“DGAM appeals to all concerned international organizations and all those interested in world heritage to condemn this aggression and to pressure the Turkish regime to prevent the targeting of archeological and cultural sites in Efrin, one of the richest areas in Syria.”

The air strikes were part of a military offensive the Turkish government launched on January 20 against the People’s Protection Units — or the mainly Kurdish militia known as the YPG — to secure Afrin from what it considers a terrorist organization. Beyond the damage to historical remains, the human cost since the operation began is alarming: the United Nation estimates that 5,000 civilians have been displaced and dozens have been killed, according to Reuters.

Rebuilt sculpted wall of the Ain Dara temple, photographed in 2005 (photo via Wikipedia)

A sphinx at Ain Dara, photographed in 2009 (photo by Verity Cridland via Wikipedia)

Featured image, top: Temple complex of Ain Dara, photographed after being hit by Turkish air strikes (image courtesy the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums)


By Claire Voon, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 30 January 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.

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“Dalí’s Melting Clock Will Head Down Under as MoMA Sends 200 Masterpieces to Melbourne,” By Julia Halperin

“Dalí’s Melting Clock Will Head Down Under as MoMA Sends 200 Masterpieces to Melbourne”

‘See the lineup of works headed to Australia for a sprawling loan show’

By Julia Halperin


The Museum of Modern Art’s collection is hitting the road—again. In June, around 200 works, including many of the museum’s best-known objects, will travel to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

The show is a wide-ranging display of the museum’s greatest hits, from a 1957 Fender electric guitar to a series of portraits of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. Works that rarely venture outside MoMA’s galleries will be shown in Australia for the first time, including Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples (1895–98), Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889), Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), and Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). (Although the show was announced in 2016, the lineup has not been made public until now.)

“They were interested in the masterworks of the institution,” MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry told the press at an event earlier this month. But curators have also included works by artists who will be less familiar to Australian audiences, such as Wifredo Lam, Lygia Clark, and Theo van Doesburg.

Pablo Picasso’s The Architect’s Table (early 1912). © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

MoMA’s masterworks have been racking up frequent flyer miles this year. While the museum is undergoing a major renovation, it has taken the opportunity to partner with institutions abroad to present highlights from its holdings. The entire collection will reconvene at the museum in 2019, when MoMA opens its expansion with a comprehensive reinstallation of the collection.

Last fall, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris presented a similarly ambitious exhibition drawn from MoMA’s star-studded holdings. The show—which examined what it means to be modern and how MoMA managed to assemble a cutting-edge collection in real time—was considered a coup for the deep-pocketed institution.

Not to be outdone, Melbourne’s NGV has taken a more mass-appeal approach, surveying 130 years of art history through the lens of MoMA’s collection. (The show is the largest installment to date of the museum’s “Winter Masterpieces” series, which brings works from major museums around the world to Melbourne.)

Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963). © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Though there is some overlap—postcard-worthy works by Duchamp, Picasso, and Kahlo are included in both shows—the many differences between the two point to audiences’ distinct inclinations and the staggering depth of MoMA’s holdings. (Few other museums could do two best-of exhibitions and duplicate fewer than half the works.) The Paris show skewed more heavily toward photography and archival material, while the Australian exhibition has more furniture design and a larger presence by American heavyweights like Robert Rauschenberg.

A number of works in MoMA’s collection are too fragile to travel, but beyond that, nothing was off-limits for the NGV, according to a MoMA representative. The exhibition includes 127 works that have never been shown elsewhere since their acquisition and another 46 that have not been exhibited outside of MoMA in the past decade. The museum declined to comment on whether the Australian institution was funding the show and did not disclose whether MoMA received a loan fee.

While some have criticized museums for loaning out their best works—leaving audiences at home to encounter the most famous images only in the gift shop—Lowry told press that “the fact that we had many great works in Paris doesn’t take away from what we can show.”

Instead, he noted that the process of organizing these shows has helped inspire creative thinking from MoMA’s curatorial team, which hopes to vaporize “the distinction between loan shows and collection shows” when the new building opens. Sending some landmark works out on loan, he said, creates “opportunities to show other great works that might not be seen.”

See more works headed to Melbourne below.

Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders (1978). © Taito Corporation, all rights reserved. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

 

Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair (c. 1918). © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Beeldrecht, Amsterdam. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

 

Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). © 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

 

Kara Walker’s Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. (1994). © 2018 Kara Walker, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

 

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #131 (1983). © Cindy Sherman, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

“MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art” is on view at the National Gallery Victoria in Melbourne from June 8 to October 7.

Featured image, top: Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). Photo: courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Licensed by Viscopy, 2017. 


By Julia Halperin, Reprint from Artnet, 30 January 2018, © 2018 Artnet News Corporation.

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“The MFA Is Bringing Original M.C. Escher Art to Boston,” By Kalina Newman

M.C. Escher (Dutch, 1898-1972): Relativity, 1953. Lithograph, 10.9 x 11.5 inches (27.7 x 29.2 cm). © Cordon Art B.V. – Baarn – Netherlands.


“The MFA Is Bringing Original M.C. Escher Art to Boston”
‘A new exhibit called “Infinite Dimensions” will display prints never before seen in the city.’

By Kalina Newman


This Saturday—for the first time in Boston’s history—original works by graphic artist M.C. Escher will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. Titled “Infinite Dimensions,” the exhibit will showcase more than 50 pieces that range from his famous optical illusions to his earlier woodblock and pencil prints.

Escher’s art is known for inviting the viewer to transform the idea of time and space into something unknown and fluid. One of his most famous mind-bending works, Relativity, is a lithograph that depicts a collection of staircases going in several different directions. And though Escher passed away in 1972, it’s taken until 2018 for his original works to arrive in Boston.

“It struck me that when I looked at museum collections in the area that there are very few Escher prints, but yet there were so many people who are interested in the artist,” says Ronnie Baer, curator of the exhibit. “In Boston, his stuff was only known in reproduction—it had not been exhibited in original form.”

In addition to the art collection, Baer solicited feedback on Escher’s work from dozens of notable creative professionals such as musician Yo-Yo Ma and chef Barbara Lynch.

“[It’s] not so much an authoritative point of view, but a showcase of many different reasons to appreciate his prints,” says Baer of the feedback.

Statements from locals will be placed next to each work so that museum visitors may enjoy the art and consider other points of view at the same time. For example, astronaut Nicole Stott was asked to comment on the piece Three Worlds Illustrated, a print that depicts a koi fish swimming in a lily pond.

“Escher’s ‘Three Worlds’ is like seeing the Earth from space, encouraging us to understand the harmony and complexity of our home from a completely new vantage point,” said Stott in her statement.

M.C. Escher. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another highlight of the exhibit is the display of Escher’s gigantic piece Metamorphosis II, a black, green and brown woodcut print that spans 13 feet across twenty blocks of wood. The print transforms from a chessboard, to a village, to a tessellation of cubes, among other shapes. The piece is set to take up an entire room, making it ideal for art-loving Instagrammers to photograph.

However, the exhibit goes beyond Escher’s gigantic and sometimes mind-boggling prints. Baer worked to gather dozens of Escher’s lesser-known works in order to represent the artist’s technical side. All of Escher’s printmaking skills are honored, from lithographs, to wood engravings, to linocuts of art.

“There’s a lot to see and explore,” explains Baer.

One showcase of Escher’s skill is the display of his close-up print, Eye. A series of six proofs, or rough drafts, will be displayed next to the piece to show the artist’s process in crafting the print.

“He’s really an underestimated artist,” says Baer. “This will give the public a chance to assess his artistry from his own images.”

“Infinite Dimensions” will be on view February 3 through May 28, 2018 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, mfa.org.

Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston


By Kalina Newman, Reprint from Boston Magazine, 31 January 2018, 2018, © Metro Corp.


 

M.C. Escher (Dutch, 1898-1972): Rippled Surface, March 1950. Linocut in black and grey-brown on japan paper, 33.6 x 40.1 cm; image: 26 x 32 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. © Cordon Art B.V. – Baarn – Netherlands. Image: The National Gallery of Canada.

 

M.C. Escher (Dutch, 1898-1972): Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935. Lithograph, 31.8 x 21.3 cm. © Cordon Art B.V. – Baarn – Netherlands.

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“Michelangelo’s Divine Magnitude and Picasso’s Parade of Power,” By Barry Nemett

Pablo Picasso, ’Curtain for the ballet ‘Parade’” (1917), tempera on canvas,1050 x 1640 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, © Succession Picasso, by SIAE 2017


“Michelangelo’s Divine Magnitude and Picasso’s Parade of Power”

‘The intimate drawings of Michelangelo Buonarroti and the largest painting Pablo Picasso ever made.’

By Barry Nemett


Recently, in two shows, on two continents, spotlighting two of history‘s greatest painters, sculptors, and draftsmen, I saw the biggest public display of drawings ever assembled by one, and the biggest painting ever created by the other.

The drawings (133 of them) are by the Italian High Renaissance titan, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). The mural-size painting (more than 30 by 50 feet) is by the 20th-century Spanish master, Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973).

“Parade” (1917), Picasso’s painted stage curtain for a Sergei Diaghilev ballet of the same name, is more than twice the size of the colossal “Guernica” (1937), his landmark anti-war statement of unmitigated suffering.

What could be bigger than tragedy? you might ask. The circus! The painting, with its winged woman in white balancing (sort of) on the back of a winged white horse, is “huger than the whole rest of the world.” as the awestruck little girl I overheard at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome proclaimed to her mom.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the minuscule was devouring the behemoth. Fingernail-scale examples of Davids wrestling Goliaths, Samsons wrestling lions, and other ink and chalk heroes wrestling other foes were busy stealing the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition, which includes more than 200 works, is brilliantly curated by Dr. Carmen C. Bambach. It is called Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (Nov. 13, 2017-Feb. 12, 2018), an apt title because Michelangelo comes as close to any artist, ever, to celebrating the sacred, whether he’s portraying an angel’s wings or a vulture’s.

Sure, there are near-life-size works, but for me the grandest, most impressive achievements in this exhibition are often no bigger than a thumb, or even a thumbnail.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” (ca.1510–11), red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study, sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924

In his widely reproduced “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” (c.1510-11), from heads to fingers to big toes, there’s enough divinity to fill the Vatican. But the drawing is not about religion. On the Sistine Ceiling, the mythical Libyan Sibyl is massive, brightly colored, elaborately draped, and holding a great big book. And she’s a major part of a gigantic, gridded masterpiece loaded with figures. At the Met, subdued to a single color, it’s just her. Well, not even. Just details of her.

But that’s plenty. Here, we’re given access to the drawing process itself — the dance of a “divine draftsman” angling in close, leaning back, and circling around a pose as he blocks out his seemingly “uncomposed” composition.

A light touch here; heavy crosshatching there — human anatomy in hints and details. A floating hand fingering an ear; a torqued torso colliding with a face; a face dreaming about a torso dreaming about coiffured hair; a woman who looks like a man (or is it a man who looks like a woman?) — this female prophet, whose model was male.

There are extra lines; changes of mind; separations; morphings; the contours of a hip turning into an ankle; a darkly defined left arm, rib cage, and back echoing the movement of the more lightly toned forms below; three stuttering big toes, and near the center of it all, a serene bodybuilder performing ballet. For, what is a body without its dance? We can identify anatomical parts. But identification is where representational art begins, not ends.

In “Archers Shooting at a Herm” (1530-33) we identify a dozen or so youths. But where are their bows? Or their arrows and clothes, for that matter? (Actually, there are a few arrows.) The drawing’s abstraction makes the curious absence of weapons beside the point. What heart-racing joy it is to be immersed in the archers’ theatrics, the group functioning as a kind of single, singular, heteromorphic creature, kneeling and sprinting and flying, its many cocked and outstretched arms engaged in synchronized flapping.

Meanwhile, in the lower right-hand corner, perhaps lullabied by a chorus of swishing arrows, an angel sleeps. Is this Cupid, with his stage prop of a bow resting uselessly across his lap, dreaming what’s going on above?

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Archers Shooting at a Herm” (1530–33), red chalk; 8 5/8 x 12 11/16 inches, ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017, www.royalcollection.org.uk

The Cupid is a comma, not a full stop. The passage runs on — and flies — to the herm, which is a square column carved with the likeness of Hermes, used as a border marker in ancient times. Here, the archers are apparently using it for target practice. Arrows against stone? The herm has always struck me as a provocative non sequitur. Is it a holdover from an earlier sketch, a new thought for a subsequent one, part of a corresponding page now missing, or simply the kind of random thought that often worms its charming, doodly, sometimes sideways way onto an image where it doesn’t belong, yet somehow gets into the title? Or maybe it was meant as a whimsical stand-in for an arrow-ridden Saint Sebastian, serving to protect, superhero style, whomever or whatever is offstage.

There is no place for whimsy in Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John” (1555-1564 ). Here, Jesus is flanked by staggering, Guernica-like sadness. What could possibly be more heartbreaking than a mother helplessly standing beneath her child as he slowly suffers an agonizing death? Mary is so traumatized she’s hardly recognizable; actually, but for the title, I may not have known she was there, dissolving like a teardrop. And Jesus and John: what a tour-de-force pairing. So much is said with so little, Jesus in physical and spiritual pain; John emotionally devastated. The difference between them is both subtle and stunning.

Jesus: his head is drooping, arms splayed, hands nailed to boards that are as angled as the letter V. Also angled is the rulered stem of the T-shaped cross that backs the Man of Sorrows. Multiplied by pentimenti, his arms seem to flutter like a broken bird. A spot of color on Christ’s foot connects the men — a metaphor for John’s outcry, and a final glimmer of life hanging from the cross.

I’ve previously seen this image only in books. Even in reproduction, there’s magic. Viewing the original could convert an atheist. Or suck every trace of joy out of life. Unless, that is, you love drawing, in which case a few ghostly marks and smudges can be transformed into rapture. Devastation and joy at once — there’s no limit to art’s magnitude.

Like the figures, the paper out of which they are coaxed looks intangible. Pure vapor. Did the artist sigh the trio into existence? After all, for Michelangelo, drawing feels as natural as breathing. Of course, I don’t really care to know how the people Michelangelo portrayed were born. There’s a want of wonder in life, and so, even if it’s hinted at, why not, like a child at a circus, simply lose ourselves in the miracle of a drawing that’s “huger than the whole rest of the world”?

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Three Labours of Hercules” (1530–33), red chalk, 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 inches, ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017, www.royalcollection.org.uk

Which, with a jolt, leads us back to Picasso’s colossal carnival curtain and the child’s declaration that it is “. . . huger than . . .” Though less hyperbolic in regard to “Parade” than it would be to most works of art, her appraisal gives free rein to her fantasy. Likewise, despite the generally naturalistic approach of Picasso’s visual language, as in the balletic “Archers Shooting at a Herm,” “Parade” is all theatrics.

If Michelangelo’s group of archers looks like a multi-limbed creature, in “Parade,” because of playful overlapping and the doubling of black-and white socks and slippers, Picasso’s awkwardly angled young man wearing a black-and-red diamond-patterned harlequin costume looks like he has four feet.

Circus is artifice and ambiguity. Accordingly, in “Parade,” the shuffle of illusion and reality abounds: the blue-shirted man sports a fake mustache; the fruit on the platter is fake, as are the awkwardly made tables with legs missing. The white horse sports fake wings, as does the footless acrobat in her white tutu. The woman in the tan bonnet, framed by what looks like a green canvas, is a painted portrait when we look only at her head and shoulders. She quits her canvas when we notice her leg, foot, and hand. The foal suckling beneath her mother becomes a symbol of the undercurrent of love and public intimacy amidst this closely knit cast of characters.

And then there’s the canvas itself, which totters between being a major painted statement and an intentionally awkward 50-foot sketch that, due to the coarse, porous material and the scrubbed or sponged-on paint, looks like a fresco when viewed close up.

Near the Palazzo Barberini, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, there was until January 21st a simultaneous exhibition, Picasso Between Cubism and Neo-Classicism: 1915-1925. Major paintings like “Three Dancers” (1925), “The Pipes of Pan” (1923), and “Two Women Running on the Beach” (1922) — capering like ballerinas — occupied the first floor of the museum. As the titles suggest, music and dance played a central role in many of these works.

Almost the entire second floor was devoted to the artist’s theatrically related drawings. A 20th-century Renaissance man, Picasso designed sets and Cubist costumes for a number of performances, designs that became as inextricable from their respective productions as Erik Satie’s music, Leonide Massine’s choreography, Jean Cocteau’s libretto, and, of course, Picasso’s art were to “Parade.“

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere” (1505–6), pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over stylus ruling and leadpoint, 20-1/16 x 12-9/16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1962

With his Renaissance counterpart, the father of Cubism shared greatness and ambition, and a love for preparatory studies. Performers call these studies “rehearsals.” Visual artists call them sketches. For many of us, they are often just as rewarding — sometimes even richer — than what they lead to.

Size, texture and many other qualities affect an artwork’s feel and magnitude, especially when those qualities are pronounced. Scale augments both the grandeur and intimacy of Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John,” and Picasso’s “Parade.” Viewed in books and online, they can fill pages and screens equally, although in reality, “Parade” is more than 80 times wider than “Christ on the Cross.” That’s one reason why, whenever possible, it’s important to see art in person..

Drawings and paintings have sizes. But there’s no limit to their magnitude.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.


By Barry Nemett, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 27 January 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.

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