Phoenix Art Museum returns to Renaissance art with Michelangelo exhibition

Phoenicians flow through the "Sacred and Profane" exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibit features 26 sketches by Michelangelo, and is on display until March 27 (Becky Brisley/DD).
 Michelangelo, Study for the Head of Leda in Leda and the Swan, ca. 1529-1530. Red pencil. Florence, Casa Buonarroti. (Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum)

Michelangelo, Study for the Head of Leda in Leda and the Swan, ca. 1529-1530. Red pencil. Florence, Casa Buonarroti. (Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum)

When Michelangelo comes to mind, most would think of David, the soaring, marble masterpiece that currently resides in the heart of the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Perhaps some would think of his colorful masterpiece in Vatican City on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–the epitome of Renaissance art.

But often, an artist’s process of creating those great masterpieces is just as striking as the end results themselves. The Phoenix Art Museum has brought in more rare Renaissance beauty with the “Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane” exhibit, where 26 of Michelangelo’s rare drawings line the maroon walls, from sketches of the human form to drafts of architectural brilliance. The exhibition opened Jan. 17, almost a year after bringing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester to Phoenicians’ eyes.

“The Phoenix Art Museum is one of several venues for this traveling exhibition,” Corine Schleif, a professor of art history at ASU, said. “Phoenix residents should avail themselves of this opportunity to see the drawings–viewing drawings gives you a chance to see how Michelangelo’s mind worked.”

Schleif said that several of the drawings are preparatory drawings, where Michelangelo put his thoughts down on paper as he was thinking about a painting or architectural commission. The text along the walls at the exhibition tells the story of a brilliant artist who just finished painting the masterpiece Sistine ceiling at the age of only 37–Michelangelo struggled for the next three decades “with the impossible task of surpassing himself.”

He became obsessed with huge projects, and his work on display conveys a scattered mind, but each drawing still holds so much raw beauty. Instead of thinking of the imagery in his perfect Sistine masterpiece, we instead see the delicate, not-always-perfect procedure–he becomes so much more mortal.

“Looking at them the viewer is privy to his conceptual processes as they are unfolding in his mind,” Schlief said.

The gallery buzzed with thoughtful whispers on Saturday, and Nancy Otte and her friend Jenn Steege were standing in the middle of the room, immersed in the drawings. Otte’s hearing dog, Quinn, sat contently at her feet, and almost seemed as just as contemplative about the surroundings.

“I’m surprised at the simplicity and the love that went into his studies of body parts, I’m surprised at the degree to which he did architectural things,” Otte said.

Otte and Steege said they valued the gallery’s representation of Michelangelo’s creative process.

“It lets you know that he was supported by the wealthy people of this time, and so they’re dictating a lot of things, and then you can see the where he puts in his own love,” Steege said. “You can’t just start there, you have to do all of the work. Everything is grounded in details and study, over and over.”

Joan Miller, who brought her budding-artist niece to the museum, was admiring a sketch of the Facade Lorenzo in Florence.

“You look at these and think about what a draftsman he was, all the detail he put into everything,” Miller said. “I knew he was involved in all different types of art, but I didn’t know that he had burned most of his sketches. He seemed to be a bit of a perfectionist. ”

These drawings are part of the few that survived, carefully preserved at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, which was briefly owned by the artist himself. Scholars believe that Michelangelo destroyed many of his drawings because he didn’t want to leave anything behind that didn’t fall under his idea of perfect.

Schlief said it is a great privilege to be able to see the drawings because normally, for conservation, they are kept tucked away, only to be brought out at the request of an art historian who has a specific reason.

“These drawings are small and were not meant as works for public viewing,” she said. “When you go to the museum and stand in front of one of them, for that moment it exists just for you. You can have an intimate relationship with a work that was drawn by a famous artist 500 years ago.”


When: Jan. 17-March 27 (The art museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday; it is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 12-5 p.m. on Sunday).

Where: Lila and Joel Harnett Gallery in the Phoenix Art Museum; 1625 N. Central Ave.

Cost: The exhibit is available with general admission, which is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors citizens, $10 for students with a student ID, $6 for children ages 6 to 17 and free for children ages 5 and under.

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