Deconstructing Michelangelo by George Scicluna
George Scicluna, formidable and powerful in his expression attempts to interpret the genius of Michelangelo, a mythical task, a labour of Hercules. Is there in George the fire and brimstone, the terribilta’ of his younger years as noted in my study ‘Passion, Power and Struggle’ (Aug 2001) or is this a contemplative and meditative phase in serenity, tranquillity and bliss?
His expression was a journey of a soul in torment, a confession of a spiritual struggle, a factual account of a mental crisis that was both psychic and tangibly physical. The frenzied but vivid images were a scanning of the artist’s brain as good and evil struggled fiercely for dominance in a bipolar stance. It was a feverish struggle fought to the bitter end. We witnessed the struggle evolving blow by blow and we were captured by its intensity. The conflict was fought with passion, verve and emotion. Although autobiographical the work had a universal and cosmic dimension. His expression if transformed has not changed drastically but subtly.
George is not afraid when he confronts Michelangelo’s language. He masters the draughtsmanship and therefore he is calm, composed and focused without being rigid. He seems to mitigate in interpretation the terribilita’ of Michelangelo’s art without diminishing the divine and heroic struggle, the power and glory involved in the artist’s oeuvre. Nietzche had affirmed that precisely in the ‘Last Judgement’ Michelangelo had betrayed the superman but had certainly discovered man.
It is quite interesting in the way George interprets the male characters: Bacchus, David, the Slaves, Moses and the Victory, Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici in contrast to the female protagonists: the Madonna and Night. In treating Lorenzo Duca d’Urbino and Giuliano Duca di Nemours (depicting contemplative and active life respectively) George has accentuated the Mannerist tendencies surging in Michelangelo to the extent that one gets the feeling of being confronted by Parmigianino instead. In Giuliano (active life) there is an elongation and narrowing of the neck and an elliptical head as if the man were a swan. Undoubtedly this mitigated approach bordering on inane Gothic stylization goes a long way to transform Michelangelo’s image to George’s vision of a looser and more distorted form, of a dynamism that is less pulsating, active, and heroic. In real life according to Alessandro Parronchi Lorenzo and Giuliano were not heroic figures though Michelangelo portrayed them as ‘condottieri’ or mercenary captains and therefore not actual portraits.
In George the heroic element is even more subdued, less emphasized. Yet there is nobility and stature in both figures with Lorenzo emanating more grandeur, nobility and psychic profundity than Giuliano. Again in the ‘Victory’ the figure George expresses is more effete, looser, more effeminate compared to that by Michelangelo even though the master composes a gesture without conviction and ‘artificioso’. Even the head of ‘David’ is more effeminate in George’s interpretation while in the ‘Bacchus’ George emphasizes the effeminate qualities of a youthful girl. The hermaphrodite takes the seductive qualities of a lovely girl. The transformation in his interpretation is highly explicit. In ‘Moses’ the bearded giant is almost senile more a Noah than a Moses. In the ‘slaves’ there is more pathos and melancholy, the suffering is not just physical but psychic. George returns to power, passion and struggle especially with reference to the contorted slave and the old slave buckling under the weight. Wonderful is the interpretation of Michelangelo’s self portrait probably borrowed from the ‘Palestrina Pieta’.
When George is faced with the ‘Mother and Child’ as a theme he becomes involved, highly impressed and utterly romantic. With deep lyricism and poetry he focuses on the youthful face of the Madonna and expresses a wistful, morose and sad look full of pathos that breaks one’s heart. The catharsis is at a climax. The tenderness, delicacy, sweetness and nobility expressed in her looks are utterly astounding. More human and humane than such images George can hardly express. The pathology is formidable. In the case of ‘Night’ George evokes a melancholic atmosphere so dense and moving that the owl seems smiling compared to the woman’s distress. Night seems weeping bitterly though restrained. The red orb behind her accentuates the tragic drama enacted before our eyes. Yet George reserves the most tragic and moving expression to his interpretation of the Pieta’. The image is heart breaking. Lacerated pain, anguish and suffering are physical and psychic, unbearable and overpowering.
In ‘Rachel’ and ‘Leah’ George feels the contrasting personalities of Michelangelo and Raffaele da Montelupo as collaborator producing stylized and Mannered images, ‘artificiosi’ to such an extent that one feels the power of Michelangelo’s genius almost tarnished. The Mannerism becomes mannerism.
The manner that George exploited medium demonstrates how important grammar becomes in the hands of a serious interpreter. George used thin ‘velaturi’ of saturated acrylics on pencil and then added scumbling or impasto, a dry brush technique with oils. These different treatments enabled him to expresses his innermost feelings confronted by Michelangelo’s genius. In one detail of the Vatican Pieta’ George uses a saturated Indian red or rusted metal quality as a symbol. A bleeding stain in the background top left. The symbol is quite easy to read. It denotes tragedy: the death of Christ.
In other instances in the muscled ‘slaves’ or in ‘David’ George retains his former passion, power and struggle and with violent ‘macchie’ of a certain ‘larghezza’ he attacks the surface with unrestrained vigour and produces an impasto that models human anatomy with great assertion. The curvilinear swirls and arcs return to haunt us and remind us of the Herculean strength of this artist from Gozo that is undoubtedly particular and peculiar. George reverts to his roots and becomes the titan of his youth; of the passion, power and struggle of old.
George has once more impressed with his capacity to overwhelm with his obsessive mental aberrations reaching to the profound unchartered depths and regions of the mind as if journeying to the centre of the earth. It is an impossible task with inevitable risks that only George can face without fear.
There is hardly a better way of illustrating George grappling with the problem of deconstructing Michelangelo than by his own expression, a bold image: Struggle (2000) based on Michelangelo’s struggling giants. The passion, power and struggle are there. It is so intense that George becomes involved in a continuous, divine and eternal struggle: life itself.