In the spring of 2017, Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra paid a remarkable tribute to the Renaissance painter Michelangelo, by painting an enormous portrait of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ on the marble quarries of Carrara, Italy. The rich colors of the mixed media wall painting (10 by 11 meters), on the very mountain where Michelangelo’s marble came from, contrasted beautifully with the white marble surface.
In the sixteenth century, sculptors, who saw themselves as artists with a capital ‘A’, selected their own marble from the quarry. Michelangelo preferred the whitest marble of the highest quality. With ropes, tree trunks and a lot of manpower the stone for Michelangelo’s David had been hauled down the mountain. The ‘David’, carved between 1501 and 1504 in Florence for the Medici family, was meant to be a symbol of strength and courage in times of setback.
A few years later, in accepting the commission to decorate the walls of the St. Peter’s Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michelangelo proved that he did not shy away from works on an even larger scale. On the walls of this chapel he painted representations from the Old Testament, classical mythology and the Last Judgment. Today, these paintings can be admired up close as photographic replicas in the exhibition ‘Michelangelo – A Different view‘ (Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam).
Looking down (instead of up!) at the replicas of the ceiling paintings, makes you wonder in what way our contemporary muralists differ from the artists of the Renaissance? Or rather, how they are similar? Although his technique differed, the Renaissance artist faced many of the same challenges as contemporary artists do. For instance, how to transfer the imagined, outlined version to its destination as accurately as possible? I always find it fascinating to think about how Michelangelo stared at the high empty walls and ceiling of the chapel, wondering where to start. One can imagine the contemporary artist facing that challenge. Nowadays, we work with aerial work platforms. In Michelangelo’s days, large wooden scaffolds filled the chapel. The ceiling paintings must have been a torment, lying on a few wooden planks, paint dripping in his eyes. The endless walking back and forth over the scaffolding to see if what he had painted was in proportion…
Muralists, past and present
Although the materials used are very different, much of the process and outcome is the same. Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures reveal a dedication to realism, with a breath of the divine – a characteristic reflected in much contemporary Street Art today. Similarly, the artist’s social, political and even religious relevance can feel strangely modern to us.
Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome will mostly remember their stiff necks from looking up at the ceiling to see distant paintings to the sound of a shrill loudspeaker constantly admonishing the excited tourists to ‘SILENTIO!’. Nothing goes beyond the real work, but if you want to be able to study the beauty of Michelangelo’s most famous paintings at your leisure, this exhibition offers a good alternative.
Michelangelo – A Different View at the Beurs van Berlage is on show till May 16, 2019