Comparison Essay (20 points).
Compare Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel (1508-12) ceiling to Matisse’s Icarus (1943-47). Both of these images are products of talented artists who were using art to portray strong beliefs that evoke the feelings of their respective times. Briefly explain how the style of each work reflects the ideas of the artist and the time in which they lived. In other words, discuss characteristics of what they LOOK like, and how the way they are depicted helps us understand the attitude of the Renaissance or Modern eras.
Although many of my students thought I was crazy to pair these two images, thinking they had NOTHING in common, I saw something intriguing, and the more I looked, the more I saw….
My first instinct in comparing these images was for the students to pick up on the optimistic outlooks both images represent. Michelangelo shows us a glorious and hopeful creation–God reaches out in his power and magnificence to impart the spark of life to the first man, his ultimate creation, Adam. This image is a clear representation of Renaissance humanism, a philosophy focusing on man’s potential, an updating of the classical intellectual “ideal” to a more perfect religious one. Matisse’s image is not that different in theme: it represents an optimistic expression of man’s potential in a modern age. In the 20th century, technology, science and the arts have combined in an outburst of hopeful expectation: man has learned and grown through the ages so that he has almost achieved that long sought-after perfection. In evidence–we can fly! The contrast comes in differentiating the motivation of a faith based, organized religion versus a knowledge based, individual spirituality.
Of course each of these images look completely different due to the contrasting artistic styles of their times. Michelangelo expresses the idealistic realism typical of art at the height of the Renaissance: finely sculpted bodies, revealing both a scientific understanding of anatomy and an artistic eye for composition. There is a balance in shape, position and symbolism. Matisse, on the other hand, simplifies his image into abstraction, intensifying the emotion through pure color, and invigorating the composition through the uneven edges of his cut-out forms.
See, it really is a nice, solid comparison.
And then, I saw something exciting….
If you turn Icarus on his side….
Isn’t that cool?
The more I thought about this comparison, the richer it became.
Let’s consider the source stories.
The biblical story of God creating Adam stresses the connection between creator and created, Father and son, but then it goes on to tell of man’s fall from grace, his separation from God, and the need for a Savior (is that Eve peeking out through God’s arm, awaiting her part in the unfolding of this tale; or is it Mary with her infant son Jesus, He who will become that Redeemer?).
Greek mythology tells of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, imprisoned on the island of Crete. In an effort to escape, Daedalus creates wings from feathers and wax. As father and son glory in the freedom of flight, Icarus ignores his father’s warning, flies too close to the sun which melts his wax, and he falls to his death in the sea.
In both stories, creation is glorious, but in both stories there is also a fall. Is it significant that Matisse assigns God’s pose to Icarus, the son? Is it his over-ambition to become “as the gods,” in his soaring through the heavens, that becomes his downfall? Is Matisse hinting that the 20th century’s technological ambitions may be its forbidden fruit? Is there a hint that the same scientific breakthroughs that helped us understand life and the universe also led to greater destruction in the world wars?
Hard to say. Matisse’s Icarus appears to be still in his soaring phase, his red heart pulsing to the rhythm of the stars, small suns of joy and wonder. But, in another interpretation, could they be explosions, and Icarus’ pose read as a free-fall?
I prefer the optimistic reading. Matisse’s work in general is filled with joy: color and light and joy. Michelangelo also believed in man’s potential, equating himself as artist in many ways with God in his role as creator. And isn’t it in this act of creation, of wings or art or airplanes, that we most reach that human potential in each of us?