Andrew Butterfield at the NYRB:
In the rooms of works from the 1540s and 1550s, the desperate ache of spiritual longing intensifies. Ever an artist, Michelangelo now began to make art about his disenchantment with art. This is especially clear in one of his intensely poignant sonnets on view here. “The alluring fantasies of the world,” it begins, “have robbed from me the time allotted for contemplating God.” The poem ends, “Make me hate all that the world values, and all its beauties I honor and adore, so that before death I grasp eternal life.” Another poem, not in the exhibition, expresses his disillusionment in even more stinging words. While carving the fierce and tragic Pietà now in the Florentine Cathedral museum, Michelangelo wrote, “In great slavery, with such weariness, and with false concepts and great danger to the soul, sculpting here things divine.” Given his anxious discontent, it is perhaps no wonder he later attacked the statue with a hammer and abandoned it.
Some of the last figure drawings in the exhibition date from just a few years before Michelangelo’s death and depict the Crucifixion. Softly drawn in black chalk with weak and wavering lines, these sorrowful images look like they are made of shimmering smoke. They seem to depict an unattainable phantasm, at once eternal and impermanent, and beyond the reach of human understanding.