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Michelangelo drawings on display in Seattle

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published October 31, 2009

While in Washington state on family business last week, I swung into the Seattle Art Museum to see something exceedingly rare: real drawings by Michelangelo. What I mean by rare is that I've never seen one of these things in person; in fact the 12 chalk sketches loaned from Italy for the museum's "Michelangelo Public and Private" temporarily double the number of the artist's drawings in the United States.

The rarity is because, while Michelangelo made hundreds or perhaps thousands of such sketches, he burned them all. Whether because he didn't want other artists to see inside his process or he just didn't consider them valuable as "art" is a matter of conflicting theories.

And it's hard for even the most devoted Michelangelo fan to call some of the items high art. Like the note he dashed off describing his dinner preferences, illustrated with line drawings of herring and pasta for the sake of the help who couldn't read.

The meat of the show lies in studies for the Sistine Chapel, both the ceiling and the "Last Judgment" fresco above the altar. There's only one really fine portrait, a face that later appears as a doomed tree-climber in the panel depicting Noah's flood, and it's exquisite indeed.

Most of the others show vague outlines, as for the resurrected Christ in the "Last Judgment," or body parts, like Jonah's foot and Ham's forearm.

But these glimpses are marvelous in what they reveal of the master's certainty, his sure hand and instinctual ability to capture anatomic perfection in few quick strokes. There's also evidence of experimentation, perhaps self-correction as he repositions a head or a line in his quest to attain what the museum signs elegantly call "divine, ecstatic energy."

The rest of the compact show reveals personal nuances, like the illustrated menu. A letter to a nephew remarks on "the beautiful and good little marzolino cheeses" sent to him and shows how he spelled his own name: "Michelangniolo Buonarroti. Photos show the finished Sistine masterpieces in enough detail to make out the forgotten corners depicting Old Testament scenes, such as Judith with the head of Holofernes and David dispatching Goliath with a sword.

And a glowing copy of the "Last Judgment" gives us an idea of how naked the fresco's redeemed and condemned in were before well-meaning but more prudish artists covered several of the figures' private parts. And there's a medal, stamped shortly after his death, which shows Michelangelo walking his dog.

Seattle serves up more

Also opening in October was a big exhibit of work by modern American artist -- and one-time Washington resident -- Alexander Calder, mostly from the collection of Seattle patrons Jon and Mary Shirley.

It includes a number of his famous suspended mobiles, large and small, some featuring uniform shapes like discs (i.e. "Gamma") and others mixing shapes, mostly his trademark three-sided design resembling guitar picks.

There are also ground-based mobiles, several models, a few paintings, some of his "joolery" (he made some 1,600 pieces of jewelry as gifts for friends) and a number of photographs. A film of his bizarre wire-and-cork figure "circus" runs continually. Build an extra 40 minutes into your schedule just to sit down and watch it, even if you've seen it before.

The whole show is remarkably entertaining, an attractive tribute to the man who said, "I want to make things that are fun to look up at." But to keep it in perspective, there's a Calder mobile showing "Jonah and the Whale," a merry assembly. But it's also fun to look up at Michelangelo's Jonah. The straight-on, foreshortened foot -- a stupendous achievement by itself -- is only part of the excitement as the prophet leans away from us to see the whale behind him, all executed on a surface that actually bends toward the viewer.

Work by another renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci, will come to neighboring Vancouver, B.C., at the time of the Winter Olympics in February. But these two ships will pass in the night. The Michelangelo show closes on Jan. 31. "Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act" will stay up longer, until April 11.

Both are apparently drawing out-of-town visitors. On the guided tour of the Calder exhibit that I took, only 20 percent of the crowd were from Seattle. Locals were an even smaller portion of the group that went with me through the Michelangelo show.

The museum is open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily, except Monday and Tuesday and from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. General admission is a "suggested donation" of $15.

Alaskans passing through town during the Christmas holidays may also want to catch "Epoch" at the Burke Museum of Natural History, on the campus of the University of Washington. This is a museum version of the book "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" for which Ketchikan artist Ray Troll collaborated with paleontologist Kirk Johnson and feature 20 of Troll's delightful illustrations. It will run from Dec. 19-May 31.

One other "museum show" must be mentioned. "Bodies: The Exhibition" has returned to Seattle in a reformatted display and will be there until March. The private company that produces the show has rented space at 1501 Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from the Seattle Art Museum and the Public Market.

This display of skinned and dissected dead people, posed in lifelike positions, has been acclaimed as fascinating and beautiful by some. It has attracted both the curious and the scholarly -- including field trips by children. It has also drawn condemnation.

No one's sure who these folks are. The Chinese government says they were unclaimed bodies from the morgue. Others suspect that they were political prisoners whose dissent led to their corpses making money for the very government that they dared to criticize. Such displays are now banned in California, Hawaii and France.

I don't have enough facts to say one way or the other. I walked by the place, fiddled for my wallet -- admission is $19 -- but finally couldn't bring myself to go through the door.

But I'm guessing that had Michelangelo been with me, he'd have eagerly bought a ticket and gone in with his chalk and paper in hand.

Alaska art en route to Kansas

From the New York Times: 34 works of American Indian art, including pieces from Alaska, have been given to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo. by benefactors Estelle and Morton Sosland. While the museum already has an outstanding collection of American Indian art, one of its major gaps had been examples of art and artifacts from the Northwest Coast from British Columbia to Yakutat Bay.

The items include an early 19th-century wooden mask from the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and one of only four totem poles by the Canadian Haida Bill Reid, who died in 1998.

The gift, which experts in the field say is worth about $6 million, will go on display this month, when the museum opens 6,100 square feet of new gallery space.

Find Mike Dunham online at or call 257-4332.