Figures and forms

Bill Viola, “Departing Angel”, via Royal Academy

To the Royal Academy on a Friday evening, joining those neglectful souls rushing to see the Bill Viola / Michelangelo exhibition before it closes (on March 31st). It was very impressive – it could hardly have been otherwise. The exhibition brings together the work of video artist (for want of a better term) Bill Viola, with his epic, elemental moving images exploring the human condition, and the drawings of Renaissance master Michelangelo.

They are artists of similar preoccupations and ambitions. That’s the bold claim behind the show, and to be there was to be in agreement with it. Some commentators have suggested that it has been a bit unfair, not to say presumptuous, to exhibit Viola alongside one of the greatest of all artists, but to me it was sometimes Viola who was the greater. Michelangelo was represented by his drawings, tiny in comparisons to the vast canvases employed by Viola, and too often obscured by the earnest visitors crowded round each image. We were encouraged to view the works in awe (“they are considered unsurpassed in their brilliance of execution and intellectual sophistication”, the exhibition leaflet reliably informs us), but to this viewer they came across as insufficiently human. It’s something in the figures, masterfully observed in their individual details, but lacking credibility in their overall composition. It was like someone had picked up a set of dismembered limbs and torsos, then rearranged them to form human beings in striking poses. They were human yet alien at the same time. Michelangelo was looking for the soul yet somehow soul was the one thing that he contrived to leave out.

Michelangelo, ‘Children’s Bacchanal’, via Fordham Art History

It helped to cross-compare them with Viola’s work, which likewise seeks out the spiritual lying beyond the corporeal. We see submerged figures rising slowly through watery depths, a naked elderly couple each investigating themselves with torches, a row of figures as in a gallery though each is lying underwater, seemingly holding their breath for infinity. They look human enough, yet in striving to symbolise something more they lose it at the same time. “Viola’s focus on inner states acquires a sharpened symbolic dimension as more overt manifestations of the soul, of a timeless essence within us that our body temporarily houses”, says the leaflet, with no less confidence than before. Michelangelo would have agreed with that, but this viewer did not. We are not timeless; we are timeful. We are defined by how we are held within time, not because of anything about us that might appear to lie outside it.

I admired the great technical skill on display, the witty games played with duration and perception, the deep appreciation of moving images as being akin to the process of thought. But moving images also bring out our absurdity. We watch Viola’s videos to see what happens next, maybe a little awestruck but also just curious. We wonder what his subjects thought of being asked to fall into water (how many retakes were there?), to peruse their naked selves with torches, to cry for the camera. Behind every image was an ordinary person who in representing the ineffable remained all too material. If you stop believing, all that remains is an artist’s model, enquiring if it would be OK for them to step out of the water now because it is getting cold, or asking if they can get down from the cross because their arms are tired.

The following day I went to a far humbler, human-sized show and much preferred it. Barbara Hepworth: artist in society 1948-53 is a modest exhibition hosted by St Albans Museum + Gallery (until 8 September). It is in a single room in the basement floor. It presents a small selection of drawings and sculptures, alongside photographs and other archival objects, that focus on her post-war career and connections with Hertfordshire. I was struck by the gentle humanity on display. There is something about Hepworth’s work that, even when she creates abstract figures out of human forms, has a homeliness about it. It observes but it does not pronounce. There are some exquisite drawings of surgeons and nurses in an operating theatre, semi-abstract figures shaped both naturalistically and symbolically, kept prosaic by the realism of their eyes. There is a sculpture derived from three figures, entitled ‘Vertical Forms’ (usually positioned on the façade of a University of Hertfordshire building) positioned close to drawings of nude models standing about casually, caught by the artist after the session rather than during it. The juxtaposition told you something of what we come from.

Barbara Hepworth, ‘Group III Evocation’, St Albans Museum + Gallery

I was particularly struck by one piece, ‘Group III (Evocation)’, which is an arrangement of small figures in white, gathered as though inspecting their own construction. That’s because of the fascinating observation given by Hepworth on the label that accompanies the sculpture, made on seeing people’s response to architectural space in the Piazza San Marco, Venice:

They walked differently, discovering their innate dignity. They grouped themselves in unconscious recognition of their importance in relation to each other as human beings.

I like this, not just for its acute observation of how we arrange ourselves in relation to others, but of the importance of the observer in the observation of art. I’m fascinated by how people look at art. I take covert photographs of people gathered before a painting (sadly photography was not permitted in the Royal Academy, but how people stood and sat before Viola and Michelangelo, halfway between the prayerful and the informal, was intriguing to witness). They may be admiring generally, or studying a particular detail, or simply straining over the heads of others for a view, but they are also arranging themselves in relation to the object. The object becomes a human thing, as they the viewers are. The observation exists in the relationship.

People viewing Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Vertical Forms’, St Albans Museum + Gallery

It is interesting how verbally eloquent great artists often are. There would seem to be no necessary connection between skill in creating art and skill in describing what it is that you have done, yet time and again the evidence points otherwise. Indeed, one could almost argue that a great artist can only be so if they can explain themselves, because coherent thought must find its expression in language. Hepworth’s words made me look anew at where I was and what I was doing. I was greatly struck by Bill Viola’s eloquence in describing what drove his art in quotations given on the walls of the Royal Academy exhibition. His words trained the eye. Michelangelo was unavailable for interview, but his poems (likewise reproduced on the walls) spoke deeply of the well-springs of his feeling and inspiration. His poems make him human again. I much prefer them.

As, Lady, when we hew away
The rugged outer stone,
A living form is shown,
Which, as the marble wastes, grows more defined;
So does our fleshly hull of clay,
That harsh and rude and savage rind,
Conceal the impulses of right
Of the weak soul, which trembles still.
Thou only canst unbind
This veil which hides my inner light;
For I alone have neither strength nor will.

‘Madrigal XII’, from Selected Poems by Michelangeo Buonarroti (ed. Ednah Cherry)


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