Searching for the connection between Michelangelo and Bill Viola

Michelangelo and Bill Viola both set out to investigate the ineffable – but in a new double show at the Royal Academy, affinities between them are not enough to bridge the divide.

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There is something of a fad at the moment for joint exhibitions: the most recent iterations include Mantegna and Bellini at The National Gallery and both Dalí and Duchamp, and Klimt and Schiele at the Royal Academy, an organisation that likes seeing double. The idea of taking two contemporaneous artists and unpicking how they informed and influenced one another can be enlightening. The RA’s latest pairing, however, is rather less straightforward.

In 2006 Bill Viola, the doyen of video artists, visited Windsor Castle and was smitten by the Michelangelo drawings shown to him by Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings at the Royal Collection Trust. As they pored over the sheets they identified a shared concern for the big themes of human existence that spanned the 500 years separating the two artists. The result is Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy, which puts 12 video installations by the 21st-century New Yorker alongside 14 drawings and one sculpture by the 16th-century Florentine.


Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ

Viola and Clayton hope the result is a dialogue but, of course, it isn’t and can’t be. Short of Michelangelo having discovered a wormhole in the space-time continuum there can be no meaningful conversation, just a monologue. Michelangelo was all too aware of eternity – the time and effort he spent on the Sistine Chapel paintings and sculpting the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo are evidence of that – but not aware of Bill Viola. This ahistoricism means that this is less a case of comparing apples and oranges than apples and haddock: the exhibition is in effect two separate shows that exist in the same space.

The essential and unbridgeable differences are evident from the very beginning. Viola’s Nantes Triptych (1992) – three videos showing simultaneously a woman giving birth, the artist’s mother dying in hospital and a body gently moving in dark water – is placed opposite two Michelangelo drawings of the Virgin and Child and the Taddei Tondo, the RA’s celebrated circular relief sculpture of the same theme. Viola unequivocally sandwiches the formlessness of life between the mysteries of birth and death: the groans of the birthing mother contrast with the hiss of the dying woman’s respirator. He presses the button and lets his cameras run for 30 minutes.

Michelangelo’s works freeze a single moment rather than stretch it and, for all the universality of the mother and child theme, are specifically Christian images. The mystery he investigates is less the human condition, more how divinity was given human form. Where Viola is an observer, Michelangelo is a creator, giving shape to his conception with his chisel – and pencil point. Both set out to investigate the ineffable, but where Viola is airy, Michelangelo is taut.


Nantes Triptych

Water is a constant theme with Viola. It is too pat to say that is because he nearly drowned in a lake as a boy when on a family holiday (he described the feeling as revealing “the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen in my life”), but his work is full of floating bodies, sinking and emerging in a rain of bubbles. Everything for him is aqueous, struggling to find and maintain shape. He has long been interested, too, in the mystical aspects of Zen Buddhism, Sufism and Christianity. It makes his work emotionally charged – but what it is charged with is less clear, which means his projections can have a wafty New Age feel to them, the equivalent of visual yoga.

At his best, though, they are extremely potent. Tristan’s Ascension (2005) is wonderful: a huge vertical projection showing a white-draped body slowly rising from a slab through an ever-increasing cascade of water. As an image of a departing soul, of the human yearning for the numinous or the transcendence of grace, it is both beautiful and affecting, haunting and unsettling. There is, indeed, an affinity with Michelangelo’s drawings of the resurrection (circa 1532-33), which also show the upwards surge of a body. Michelangelo, though, is not evoking a nebulous feeling but trying to imagine how this moment of supreme religious transcendence would be expressed in Christ’s muscles and limbs. “Whoever is born arrives at death through time’s swift passage; and the sun leaves nothing alive,” he wrote in a poem of 1520 – unless, that is, you are the son of God.

Affinities between the two artists are not, however, enough to bridge the divide; the contrasts between some of the greatest works on paper ever made and huge video projections, between compressed emotion and indefinable questing are uncomfortable. There aren’t too many artists who can stand up to Michelangelo and here it is the Renaissance man who, unsurprisingly, grabs and holds the attention tight. Nevertheless, go for the Michelangelos and you will get a nice Viola retrospective thrown in, too. 

Bill Viola / Michelangelo
Royal Academy, London W1

All photos: KIRA PEROV/BILL VIOLA STUDIO, ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2019

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe