Hercules’ big club

The Royal Academy have paired Bill Viola‘s huge video installations with Michaelangelo‘s exquisite muscular Christs, serene Virgins and flailing horses.  Viola’s triptych of Man slowly surfacing through water is flanked by women, one splayed and crying giving birth, the other, his mother, insensate, dying.  This “deeply spiritual” portrayal of life’s journey seemed crudely gendered: man the artist, man the observer, man the not-bloody-get-on-and-do-something-useful, not even hold a hand or wipe a brow.  Michaelangelo’s drawings are remarkable. His tiny still images dwarf Viola’s great moving tableaux: the soft strokes of chalk building shapes in four dimensions.  Still, even placing them behind me, Viola’s intrusive art resulted in my having irreverent and ridiculous thoughts.  The great master draughtsman was on his own journey of self-discovery.  Mary cradle’s her son’s body but her face is calm, never touched by childbirth or mourning.  That itinerant rabbi is strangely ripped and, interestingly, beardless.  In drawing after drawing He rises straight up from the tomb, his body erect in the morning after the cold sleep of death.

I found myself outside the exhibition, drawing the 10 foot high cast of the marble from the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Rome.  My observation went to pot, my brain contradicting what I saw: I gifted him with head and genitals in proportion to his huge muscular body whereas on the statue both seemed ridiculously small.  He leans on his huge knobbly war club, which is hooded by a draped hide, bringing to my mind a woman’s inner lips.  What did the sculptor mean to show? It just made me laugh: are we men being trolled across the centuries by what appears a hilarious parody of male prowess?

Upstairs, I drew a cast of an ancient torso, shorn of limbs and head, which is placed in front of a drawing for a never completed painting of Thetis bringing the grieving Achilles his armour.  Once again, my eye failed me and I lost the sense of depth, such that the impressive sculpture and the hero’s whitened face appear to lean in conspiratorially.