The Royal Academy’s new exhibition is frustrating and pompous –  despite including some beautiful drawings by Michelangelo.


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

It is really difficult to know exactly what the Royal Academy was trying to achieve with its first display featuring a huge amount video art by Bill Viola, showcased alongside some beautiful drawings by Michelangelo. This is despite its claim that it wants to show how both artists in their own ways explored the same themes of life, death and rebirth.

In highlighting these themes, neither of the artist’s style actually compliment each other to much purpose, making it difficult for visitors to fully understand how Viola has been influenced a great deal by Michelangelo. This is a real shame because it is great to see a selection of Michelangelo’s delicate and exquisite drawings being displayed and to some extent celebrated.

The problem with this exhibition is that there is so much attention paid to Viola’s work, it overshadows Michelangelo’s superior work. The galleries solely devoted to the contemporary artist’s work feel empty and soulless and it is only when both artists are merged together that something coherent about the exhibition emerges – particularly when it comes to the resurrection section that you can really sense how Viola was influenced by Michelangelo through his piece ‘Surrender’.

As Viola’s work relies so much on sight and sound together, it can distract from Michelangelo’s drawings. It is a shame because it is possible to see each artist’s though processes and examination of life and death – but it requires a lot of patience to see through the pretentiousness of it all.

However, this all being said it is still a delight to see Michelangelo’s drawings on display. In particular his early sketches for the Sistine Chapel and Presentation drawings are wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking, adding to the spiritual vibe of the exhibition perfectly. But there is definitely not enough of his work included into the exhibition as a whole to make for a balanced argument – it is very much about Viola.

The exhibition never allows visitors to forget this is all about life,death and the soul – but the pieces of Viola’s work don’t nearly reflect this enough which is exactly why the exhibition feels as though it loses its way.

Overall, while it is interesting to see why the Royal Academy has placed two such contrasting artists on display together – it doesn’t feel as though the boldness of the ideas expressed in this display fully pays off. Feels like a real missed opportunity.

By Emma Clarendon

Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth is on display at the Royal  Academy until the 31st March.  

Rating: ⭐⭐