Who’s the Real Artist – Leonardo or Michelangelo?

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Who is the greater novelist, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? The writer Kevin Hartnett, writing in The Millions admitted to his preference for “Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life to Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.(My italics)

Now,  Leonardo and Michelangelo, which one is closer to the angles of everyday life and who’s nearer to the edges of experience?  

I shall take it that Tolstoy is more holistic in his writing, putting the story in a larger picture. Dostoevsky, on the other hand gives the reader the minute, piercing experience of a telling moment. In this sense, Leonardo is nearer to the edges of experience.

Leonardo is without a doubt the greatest artist-anatomist of all time, and a scientist in his own right with his many experiments and inventions. But as recounted by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, Leonardo’s curiosity and courage for experimentation had done great damage to his art:   

Leonardo made a unique machine, a wooden elevator, so he could move up and down the wall in comfort. But, as with the Last Supper, technical ingenuity got the better of him. Leonardo used a method – apparently based on a recipe in the ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder – to enable him to paint the wall in oils. The mixture didn’t work – he may have been cheated on materials; the upper part dried dark and the lower parts disintegrated.  

But how did his art look? Here are Jones’ descriptions of Leonardo and Michelangelo’s different ways of depicting battle scenes in their preparatory drawings:

[Leonardo] the horses as tense and confrontational as the men, the men as bestial as the animals – warriors have their mouths snarlingly open, as if they want to bite flesh.

Leonardo depicted the very heart of battle, agonising, horrific entanglement of human and animal bodies, but Michelangelo drew war’s margins, a moment of bizarre ordinariness, when Florentine soldiers, bathing naked in the Arno, hear the enemy coming and and rush to get out of the water and put on armour.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter, 2012),  Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy – Images From A Scientific Revolution  tells the story of this unique moment when art and science grew side by side (which did not last long),  from its collection of Renaissance drawings, manuscripts and books. The author, the Florentine science historian Domenico Laurenza, himself with an interest in art says:

From the point of view of visual language, Leonardo produced the most complex and sophisticated anatomical representations of all time. That this perfection contained its own limits, however, is exemplified by a set of drawings of strictly scientific scope…

Unlike Leonardo, Michelangelo studied anatomy exclusively  as a function of his art, showing himself… to be basically uninterested in the production of a scientific treatise.

Laurenza further describes Michelangelo’s viewpoint:

The surface of the body changes as it moves: the parts in relief rise and flatten in one motion, their appearance shifting according to the point of view of the beholder…[anatomy is the] careful study of these metamorphoses of form…

For Michelangelo, anatomy is to understand these changes, the variations of the surface of the body while in motion. The result is a larger view, a more holistic depiction of not just individuals but groups in action.

No doubt, then Michelangelo is more the real artist than Leonardo.

 

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