It’s a little of a shock to enter through the doors into the pitch black and have to grope your way to find the room beyond, but that is how this exhibition ‘Life Death Rebirth’ starts. Beyond, the dark room is dark except for the moving image of a naked man slowly rising up through a pool of water to inhale a few gasps of air before falling back into its depths – Bill Viola’s ‘The Messenger’ first shown in Durham Cathedral in 1996, full of meanings to do with rebirth and reincarnation, not just of the man on the screen but of all of us watching it.
This is the start of an unexpected combination – the 20th/21st century art of Bill Viola alongside the 16th century drawings of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Viola, one of the proponents of modern video art, vs Michelangelo, one of the masters of the Renaissance. Viola considers that modern video art takes viewers into the 4th dimension, in the same way that Renaissance art took viewers into the 3rd.
One common link is imagery around the human body, from birth, through life to death and rebirth, though Viola creates optical and other effects that Michelangelo could not have dreamt of. The exhibition curators have arranged work from both artists on similar themes such as birth, death and exploring the inner soul together in some of the rooms, while in others, Viola takes the rooms completely over, one of the most fascinating works being ‘The Reflecting Pool’ from 1992 where physical and reflected images, along with the ripples in the pool, come and go, out of sync with each other, again full of meaning about the physical, the intangible, what we see and what lies underneath what we think we see. Water features as a theme in many of Viola’s work, said to link to the experience he had as a child when he almost drowned, but somehow experienced not panic, but a state of bliss. In his last work in the exhibition, ‘Tristan’s Ascension’, water seems to turn into fire, taking the figure whose dark silhouette is shown from our world up into another world.
While Viola’s work is fascinating, Michelangelo wins in terms of artistry and skill, with his wonderful drawings on loan from the Royal Collection. Perhaps they should not be directly compared as the experience is different. With Viola, you immerse yourself in the experience; with Michelangelo you follow the detailed lines of the beautiful figures he has brought to life on paper and the Royal Academy’s marble ‘Taddei Tondo’.
Nearby is a fascinating and related exhibition on the Professors of Anatomy which have been a mainstay of teaching in the Royal Academy Schools, from William Hunter in 1768 to Gerald Libby today, anatomical teaching remaining an important part of the art curriculum, with most of the Professors having had clinical careers outside the RA while also playing a role in the social life of the Academy.