What brings these two contrasting artists together in exhibition was a visit to the Royal Collection in 2006 where Viola and the RA curator viewed the Renaissance master’s sketches. Recognising themes of birth and death and the transience of life which also resonate strongly in Viola’s work, the idea of a joint exhibition was hatched. The exhibition is the first of its kind at the Royal Academy largely devoted to video art and, also affords the display of previously unseen sketches by Michelangelo cosseted in the vaults of Windsor Castle alongside the Royal Academy’s ‘Taddei Tondo’ in marble.
Life, Death, Rebirth Royal Academy of Arts
26 January – 31 March 2019
However, curator Martin Clayton, is at pains to explain that the pairing of these two very different artists is in no way a comparison of Viola as somehow a present-day Michelangelo. Indeed, this would be a presumption for most artists throughout history, to say the least. In fact, there is only one point in the exhibition when a Viola installation is displayed between two Michelangelo sketches of Christ’s Crucifixion and probably the one point in which proximity works.
“Viola’s work is interactive, with movement, light and sound. It is commanding, in fact demanding. Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings are fewer and quietly line the gallery walls under subtle lighting. And yet these careful, masterful sketches of muscular gods and cupids outshine the larger than life installations however powerful and impressive that impact."
The exhibition holds as an exposition of the concepts and emotions outlined in the title, albeit from two very different artists and methods. Michelangelo’s sketches depict the birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ and the mortality and immortality of Greek gods in finite, beautiful detail using chalk. Viola’s large screen video installations and projections record actual childbirth, his mother’s dying moments, and life-sized close-ups of aged naked bodies and bodies expressing a range of emotions from peace to trauma. Michelangelo’s sketches are rooted in the Italian Renaissance c1530s, in the context of pervasive religiosity. Viola’s work, whilst a product of a plural, secular, late twentieth century, evokes spirituality.
At times, the exhibition flails in the very polarisation of the actual art itself. Although, Clayton describes the exhibition as a dialogue, in truth only one of the artists can claim to speak and interpret that conversation.
The domination of Viola’s installations, curated by his wife Kira Perov, looms large. They are brightly mesmerising alongside Michelangelo’s comparatively small, framed drawings in monotone. Viola’s work is interactive, with movement, light and sound. It is commanding, in fact demanding. Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings are fewer and quietly line the gallery walls under subtle lighting. And yet these careful, masterful sketches of muscular gods and cupids outshine the larger than life installations however powerful and impressive that impact.
Sometimes the artists simply part company. Many of Michelangelo’s sketches are said to be gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman for whom he developed a deep love. Viola’s installations are not love epistles.
It is the careful efforts of the curators that weave the exhibition together (in truth, the work of both artists is compelling, whether together or solo). The curators cleverly explain how Michelangelo and Viola share a fascination with the human condition, death and the longing for immortality even resurrection. Although these are universal preoccupations among artists, the juxtaposition of both oeuvres succeeds in drawing out the contemplation and passion of both artists. Pairing any artist with Michelangelo other than his peers, is a bold move, but in bringing Viola’s video art into the RA, Life, Birth and Rebirth makes an exciting challenge.