Michelangelo. The name is instantly recognizable. When a person hears it, images of the David, the Sistine Chapel, and the Pieta come to mind; the name itself is associated with the heights of artistic excellence. With this in mind, when it was announced that the government of Italy was lending a Michelangelo statue to the National Gallery of Art, I jumped at the chance to see the master’s unfinished “David-Apollo” statue.
First, what I feel is some important background: photography is allowed with this statue. This is more significant than you’d think. As I discovered when I was in Florence in November, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the museum the David-Apollo is from, does not allow photography. Annoyingly, this is common throughout Italian museums. So a chance to get photos of this work is not something one should miss. You should jump at it. Also, exhibitions like this are another reason why it’s so awesome to live in this city!
Second, I did want to give a quick critique of the work; think of it as something like an artistic scouting report. This is so if you are able to see the statue, you won’t be shocked by what you see. Luckily special tickets or waiting in line aren’t required to see the statue, as it is located in the middle of the West Building’s Renaissance collection. And if I can segue for a moment: spend some time in that collection, as it is amazingly good. I’ve recently spent the three months in Europe, going to some of the best museums in the world. The Gallery’s Renaissance collection is one of the best I’ve seen and much more diverse in subject matter than what you see in Europe (which tends to be the same three religious scenes over and over again).
I would like to start with some criticism: this is not a masterpiece. In fact, if Michelangelo hadn’t touched this statue, I’m convinced it would have been melted down for lime long ago. It is very much an unfinished work. As you can see from some of the photos, distinct chisel marks are obvious; the hands are as more blocks of stone; and the feet are even less distinct. The rest of the work is not much better.
And the reason the statue is called “David-Apollo” is that it is impossible to tell who the statue is. Apollo has a very clear artistic image in Western Art, which is a youthful male beauty with a bow and arrow; while David has a less distinct image, but is generally youthful and strong, with a sling (the one that killed Goliath). There is a whole political and historical back story to the possible subject matter; I won’t touch on it here but the Washington Post did a nice job of summarizing in their review.
Frankly, if you want to see a true great Michelangelo sculpture, go to Florence (the David or the Deposition, also unfinished), Rome (the Pietà), or to Bruges (Madonna of Bruges). In fact, if you want to see some great sculpture, go to the Ground Floor of the NGA and see some other amazing Renaissance and modern sculptures; particularly some great Rodins.
This does not mean avoid seeing this work; quite the opposite. The artistic qualities of this statue are not the reason to go see the David-Apollo; the reasons to see it are that it IS a Michelangelo. And that becomes evident when you see the posture the statue is posed in. Michelangelo was known for making sculptures and paintings of the human body in positions that would be uncomfortable if imitated by a living person. But rather than seeming strange, these postures give the form an amazing life. Sadly, that life is not evident in this statue. But the statue does give a fascinating idea of the progress of creating a sculpture; the middle ground between a block of stone and a finished work.
The statue will be at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building (that would be the large, neoclassical building; the one with the dome) until March 3rd. As I mentioned, there are no special tickets or special requirements to see it; it is on the Main floor, among the museum’s Renaissance collection. Be sure to check out the rest of the Gallery’s Renaissance art collection, particularly the only Leonardo da Vinci in North America, the Ginevra de’ Benci, and no less than three Raphael paintings (all in the permanent collection). It’s a rare thing in the world to have works by the three leading masters of the Renaissance under one roof; take advantage of it.