Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Michelangelo's complaint

My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!


Michelangelo was a sculptor and a poet, and Robert Pinsky has posted a poem of his regarding the aches and pains he experienced as he undertook the challenge of painting the Sistine Chapel.The sonnet is less interesting as poetry than it is a document of how Michelangelo felt about his labor over the commission he didn't want, the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. No offense to Gail Mazur's translations, but the fleshy descriptions that inform us of what appendages and what internal organs ache likely read better in the Master's original Italian, the advantage of the original tongue being that one could better ear the innate musicality of the nouns and their near rhymes. This seems just a tad strained, and reads as though Mazur had to create phrases of her own when some word clusters couldn't be clearly conveyed into English. This raises the question as to how much of Michelangelo we were actually reading. Or perhaps I'm just tone deaf to the whole matter. What do believe, though, is that we are getting an accurate reading of the great artist's pains and frustrations; what is flat as poetry is fascinating as document. This is a another cranky, self-lampooning poem from a genius who finds that possessing over-sized talent can be a large cross to bear, being, in this case, a great physical pain. I did enjoy the way in which Michelangelo described the way his body has been twisted and reconfigured in the pursuit of filling up an unlikely surface ; the canvas, as it were, and the artist's body , were in the least likely of locations. The poem is the venting of a man who angry with the moral and social authority of the Pope who is preventing him from working in what he feels is his true medium, sculpture; painting is a curse that visits a stream of punishments upon. It's as if an interloper is being punished :

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.


There's not the remotest suggestion of joy in this passage. Rather than being in the moment with the object he's fashioning, gather inspiration as he goes along and reaching a point where mere technical mastery comes to the service of actual genius, what is described here is someone trying to remember formalities of something he wasn't comfortable doing, guessing around the edges of the tableau as to where colors and their textures out to go. He is "blind and aimless" , unable to see the work in whole, unable to envision it as finished, save for scaled down drawings outlining the work in progress. Interestingly, this isn't the voice of the supremely confident artist we read about, but rather the self-denigrating venting of a trainee in a new job. The feeling of doing this job wrong comes across as a palpable fatalism.The poem that surpasses mere complaint, it reveals the acute pain that accompanies the unwanted commission. But for all the discomfort and twisting and bending and otherwise unnatural distensions and compressions his body must absorb during the work, a clenched teeth determination comes across; as much as I feel pain and degradation, as great as this ceiling will be. We've come to admire the spectacle of the ceiling, the detail, the ingenious solutions to problems that arose, but for the artist it seems merely something to be endured, gotten over with. The ceiling appeared masterful as if composed from a resentment; Michelangelo sounds as if he regards this as mere professionalism.


My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
The sculptor feels abused, made to perform an unnatural function for a client whom he couldn't refuse. His body and his art were prostituted in the service of another man's egomania, and so he calls for his honor to be defended. He is not a painter, he assures us, and the irony of it all is that it is the painting on the Sistine Chapel for which he best known. Likely he would've loathed the recognition and seethe mightily that the masses who adore the painting are fools and simpletons.He was not a painter. Frank O'Hara wasn't a painter either. But he was an excellent poet.
***
A discussion at Slate's Poems Fray forum, where this post originally appeared.