The AGO Showcases Michelangelo's Renaissance Dreams
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The AGO Showcases Michelangelo’s Renaissance Dreams

A new exhibit offers a glimpse at the frustrations and triumphs of the great artist.

Thirty rare unfinished drawings by Renaissance master Michelangelo have come to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The new exhibit Michelangelo: Quest for Genius offers a unique glimpse at the artist’s creative process, his frustrations, and even his failures, humanizing a man often held up to be untouchable.

The drawings include preparatory sketches for some of Michelangelo’s most famous works, ornate gifts the artist intended for men he loved, and dreamed up plans for sculptures, paintings, and buildings that were never realized. The changing whims and fortunes of his patrons, the volatile political climate of the Florentine Republic he called home, and the artist’s financial concerns conspired to deny his creative impulse time and time again.

David Wistow, the AGO interpretive planner who helped assemble the exhibit, believes the essence of Michelangelo’s talent can be found in these frustrations. “What I love to imagine—he’s in his studio, and he’s got his emotional life, and he’s got his intellectual life, and his spiritual life,” says Wistow. “And he has his talents as a sculptor, painter, and draftsman. And then another component in the equation is that […] he’s been told to paint this, to sculpt this. And so how does he bring those factors together, in the privacy of his studio, and make something coherent from it? That is the master, that is the genius.”

The drawings are not the only feature of the exhibit. There are also 3D models that show what some of Michelangelo’s buildings might have resembled had they been completed. “The dangers are the same as with every new technology in that you tend to believe it too much,” says Lloyd DeWitt, curator of European art at the AGO. “But what we literally see unfolding here are dreams coming true. For so long we’ve wanted to have some way to imagine walking into a building that Michelangelo designed, feeling what it must have felt like.”

Showcased alongside Michelangelo’s works are the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, who considered Michelangelo an inspiration, and whose artistic endeavours were also occasionally thwarted by forces beyond his control (Rodin’s most famous piece, The Thinker, was originally part of a massive work that was never used as the artist intended). “The show took off as a conversation between the two artists,” says DeWitt, “when we realized we had actually more layers of psychological connection, and especially the kind of richness that would relate closely to our viewers.”

Those working on the AGO exhibit are hopeful that it will connect visitors more intimately to the struggles and triumphs of the artist, and the process of creativity. “I think it’s true that Michelangelo is known by only a handful of works—that is the Sistine Chapel, and it’s the David, and it’s the Pietà,” says Wistow. “And I think what you’ll leave with from this is some sense of the private world. And it’s not just his private personal life, but his private professional life—as if you were literally peering over his shoulder and watching his brain at work.”

Michelangelo: Quest for Genius opens Saturday, October 18 at the AGO and will run until Sunday, January 11.