Art Review: Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth, Royal Academy ‘Magnificent’


This show is magnificent, it really is. It takes the video works of contemporary artist Bill Viola – an artist I have a deep regard for – and considers his examination of, well, life death and rebirth through the prism of Michelangelo’s drawings – that demigod of the Renaissance – who examined those very same themes.

Chances are you are expecting me to say, well, Michelangelo did it better. And, further, why on earth would any gallery run the risk of putting the artwork of anyone else next to Michelangelo’s as, well, they’re just going to come off second best, aren’t they?

And, you know what, I had those very same thoughts when this show was first announced. I love Bill’s work and have written about it before but, Christ, I thought, he is going to have to go some way to hang tough alongside Michelangelo.

And so HUGE credit must go to the curator, Andrea Tarsia, who not only had the foresight to bring the works of these two artists together, but also created a display that sidesteps the obvious traps to deliver a profound and hugely affecting exhibition on the transience of existence and the circle of life.

An important key to the success of this show is scale.

Michelangelo’s contributions are limited to his small drawings, his focused studies and preparatory work for his bigger works held elsewhere. Fifteen drawings to be precise, most of them on loan from the Queen (don’t get me started on who “owns” these works – that’s a conversation for another day!) but these are highly finished drawings, considered to be the high point of Renaissance drawing. And rightly so.

The stunning physical representation is Michelangelo’s trademark but there’s profound spiritual observation too. A sketch where Jesus hangs on the cross, the outlines of his body deliberately overworked to have him fade away – passing into death – whereas those who observe him remain clearly defined is ridiculously breath-taking.

Then there’s all the foreshadowing that Mr Buonarroti dropped in – the infant Christ playing with his cousin, John the Baptist who holds a cross as they frolic about. The necessity of death present even from birth.

And it’s all this that the young Bill Viola soaked up when he encountered the works of the Italian Renaissance first-hand in Florence in the 1970s where he spent some of his formative years.

Decades later, it is his vast screens that dominate the RA galleries. Entire rooms are set aside to host screens larger than my own lounge wall. Lights dimmed to the point of being extinguished and sound so faint or so occasional – the patter of rain, the howl of a mother giving birth, the ebb of the tide, the crackle of a blazing fire – the drama is ramped up tenfold.

The size of the installations and the space set aside to display them far exceeds that set aside for Michelangelo, yet this works perfectly to balance the show as it gives Bill’s work space to stand alone on their own merits and not to be dwarfed by the great man’s talents and reputation.

Bill’s works are hauntingly profound. Opposite Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo is a triptych on birth, life and death, which sees footage of the woman giving birth – a life arriving in pain, ecstasy, blood and joy – running alongside another of Bill’s own mother dying, silent and ghostly in her hospital bed whilst, in between, imprecise footage of a body in motion floats as if suspended in air or water. It is well observed and well executed.

But if this seems too obvious for you, other installations are impressively curious. In one a sunlit pool resides amongst luscious green foliage. A man approaches, ponders whether to jump in – for life or rebirth? – yet when he finally leaps, he remains suspended in air before fading away. Is this a soul in transit? Do the subsequent reflections in the pool of people who are not in the garden represent the afterlife? There are no obvious answers.

Similarly, that opacity is the focus of the largest installation on display. In the darkened main gallery, huge projections of dark water dominate the room. Bubbles float up to the surface, reverse gravity and manipulation haunts others. Water is, of course, deeply linked to the life cycle – both physical and spiritual – from the breaking waters of a natural birth to the baptismal anointment, and even through to drowning and death. But what does it all mean here?

Of course, Christianity and the life cycle were inextricably linked in Michelangelo’s work, no doubt significantly because his patrons demanded it, but Bill Viola does not shy away from that subject matter either. And his final installation is his most spectacular. Water and fire exist side by side in a video performance that sees a reverse gravity waterfall wash up from a man whist another figure descends into a fireball.

It makes for a suitably dramatic finale to a show from two artists that never shied away from big themes and big ideas. And big art. A terrific exhibition.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to 31 March, 2019.

Admission £18 (concessions available).

Image Credits:

1 Bill Viola, Fire Woman, 2005. Video/sound installation. Performer: Robin Bonaccorsi  Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov

2 Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, c.1504-05. Marble relief, 107 x 107 x 22 cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bequeathed by Sir George Beaumont, 1830 © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

3 Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992. Video/sound installation. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov

4 Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1540. Black chalk, 28.1 x 26.8 cm. The British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum


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