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Art review: Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy

01 February 2019

Nicholas Cranfield sees the RA’s Bill Viola and Michelangelo show

Courtesy Bill Viola Studio/Photo Kira Perov

Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992, video/sound installation

Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992, video/sound installation

I APPROACHED the hallowed portals of the Royal Academy with more than usual trepidation. Even though I have regularly crossed the square passing the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds for more than 50 years, Burlington House and all its associations still weigh heavily. This time, my nervousness was the harsh memory that the last editor to commission me for a piece on Bill Viola’s art spiked it after my third attempt at a rewrite.

Somehow, then, I couldn’t find words to satisfy or to please, even though I had elsewhere enjoyed Viola’s work, both in the National Gallery in 2003 and at the 52nd Venice Biennale, when I hunted out the little church of San Gallo, and even on the opera stage, for a production of Tristan und Isolde.

The British Museum, London. Exchanged with Colnaghi, 1896, 1896,0710.1 © The Trustees of the British MuseumMichelangelo Buonarroti, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c.1540, black chalk  

Help, such as was called for, however came from an unexpected source with one of my return visits to the Mantegna/Bellini show (Arts, 30 November 2018). I found what I was looking for in the 1490 Bellini Madonna and Child with St Catherine and St Mary Magdalene (Galleria Accademia, Venice).

Tired and exhausted, “the peaky Madonna” looks as if she can’t wait to be rid of the two “holy bores” and is wondering whether the baby Jesus will let her get a wink of sleep, as the novelist Elizabeth Lowry acutely observed. But, in the context of Viola’s harshly lit videos, what I confronted in the Bellini was the solid black background and the extraordinary illumination of the biblical figures.

A century before the Le Nain brothers, Georges de la Tour, and any number of later Caravaggists, it is as if Bellini had shone a torch in the face of each of his sitters. Spellbound, they become timeless and silent. Owing to the state of conservation of this particular panel, the altarpiece has the immediacy and high resolution of cyberchrome printing and 3D imaging.

With Michelangelo, I felt I was on slightly safer ground, not least as I was unexpectedly given Martin Gayford’s formidable 2013 history of his epic life as a Christmas present. Gayford is such a good journalist that the pages (563 before you reach the footnotes and index) slip by. I now wonder why I did not try to clamber up this particular Appuan Alp earlier. In any case, an excuse to see drawings by Michelangelo from the Queen’s collection and the British Museum is to be seized with both hands.

The question would be: is it one exhibition or two? or, possibly, even three? The RA emphasises that the exhibition is not about influences, or even a contemporary response to the Florentine giant. Really, I thought, as I entered Burlington House: Surely it is about making money by association?

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019  Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Risen Christ, c.1532-3, Black chalk on paper, 37.2 x 22.1 cm  

Are the two artists ill-matched by moonlight? One glimpse of a Viola video (and I gave up trying to work out how many minutes of your life you will need to watch all 12 that are displayed here) offers a chance to enter a dialogue with the presentation drawings of Michelangelo. The idea for the exhibition took shape when Viola saw some of the drawings for the first time in the print room at Windsor Castle in 2006.

Much is written about the spiritual side of Viola’s work, and in this exhibition the curator, Martin Clayton, emphasises that contemporary awareness in Michelangelo; but this engenders something of an unhelpful confusion. Michelangelo worked in an age of belief, and, whatever his own personal credo, he understood that faith in a way that we would now see as monocultural.

I do not know whether Viola is a believer, and, if so, of what stripe, and I did not think it appropriate to ask his partner and colleague at the opening, as the artist himself was absent, unwell. On this showing, however, I somewhat doubt it. None of his works speaks in the light of the resurrection (why, of course, should they?), which is why I still find that the Tate’s 2014 Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) does not “work” as an aid to devotion in its current installation in a chapel at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Rather, the videos suggest a humanist, or a Platonist perhaps, playing around with ideas that might as easily be found in Buddhism, appropriating Christian language as and when, but otherwise reflecting only on the human condition. As Bishop Richard Holloway points out, it is only mankind, as far as we know, that consciously worries about life and death.

For instance, in his journal entry for 12 August 1977, writing about The Reflecting Pool, Viola puts “Baptism” next to “Re-birth”; but the video itself is a cycle of cleansing redolent only of Groundhog Day, and has nothing sacramental about it.

As a video, it is immensely enjoyable and very clever. A figure emerges from a wood, pauses at the side of a pool, leaps forward, and then hangs in a foetal-like position above the waters from which his reflection has disappeared. In turn, the figure itself fades, and shadowy reflections within the pool appear, but there appear no figures at the poolside to cast them.

The exhibition opens in pitch darkness, from which emerges the naked figure of Chad Walker, rising through deep blue-black water. The Messenger was Viola’s controversial site-specific work for Durham Cathedral.

Conceived as part of the 1996 Year of the Visual Arts UK, the drowning and rising figure offered an enigmatic commentary within the solid masonry of the house of God that surrounded it. Twenty years later, it was donated to the Tate. Does the video prompt thoughts about the death cycle?

Courtesy Bill Viola Studio/Photo Kira Perov  Bill Viola, Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005, video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay  

In the next room, Viola is more explicit in his 1992 Nantes Triptych, which runs for just less than half an hour. What the French burghers had to do with a woman giving birth to a baby, Viola’s mother dying in a hospital cot, and a man suspended in water is not evident, but the projected video images are confrontational.

To my mind, despite the “gasp” moment, it seemed emotionally limp alongside the Taddei Tondo and the four Michelangelo drawings placed on the opposite wall. And it is somehow telling that Viola witnessed his mother dying through a camera lens, putting himself — and us — at one remove from the sheer finality of death.

What is going on? In contrast, the drawings of the Madonna and Child and that of the c.1540 Lamentation (British Museum), which is rather more properly a scene of the Deposition of Christ with Nicodemus among those figures huddled behind the Virgin, and the abandoned marble roundel, which is more than a metre in diameter, are truly plangent. They offer deep reflections, as we are encouraged to understand our life cycle enfleshed in the light of Christ’s revelation.

The catalogue contains a transcript of an interview with the artist, but this proves to date back to 2001 and an American exhibition that does not refer to any of Viola’s work on show here. There is no more recent interview.

I did, however, learn from the Guggenheim interview that Viola had a book of Georges de la Tour on his shelf; so my initial hunch was not far off. I also ascertained that when, aged 17, I went to live in Florence, the bus stop I used to return home from the university was one block away from where the 23-year-old artist was at work in his video art studio. Both of us, it seems, made repeated visits to the Accademia to view the David and the Dying Slaves, walking in off the street in the years before the trail of tourists stretched far around the block.

If time, and the Lord, allows, I will, of course, go back to the RA. But will it be to see the Viola stuff, or to revisit the drawings of “divine Michelangelo”? In any lifetime, we have choices to make, as this exhibition underscores. It also occurs to me that the exhibition could form a valuable resource for Lent groups or for discussion about the transformative nature of Christ’s life and saving death during Holy Week and Easter. Group discounts are available.


“Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth” is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 31 March. Phone 020 7300 8000 (8090 for tickets). Discounted advance bookings for groups of ten or more: phone 020 7300 8090; or email adultgroups@royalacademy.org.uk.


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