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Old Masters Remix: A review of ‘Life Death Rebirth’, the Michaelangelo/Bill Viola exhibition at the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy in London has mounted an exhibition with the very serious title of “LIFE DEATH REBIRTH,” putting video installations by the American artist Bill Viola (b.1951) together with some drawings by the Renaissance master Michelangelo (1475–1564).

Museum curators have increasingly been foisting such juxtapositions on us, because it is their job to worry about how we should respond to art and right now it feels as if the Old Masters are losing their appeal. Their religious and mythological themes no longer seem so “relevant,” because the will, and the incentives, to understand them are gone. So this new curatorial strategy, which we might call the “Old Master Remix,” is contrived to bring in different crowds at once: a bit of fashionable Contemporary Art will help to cause a stir, while conferring relevance again on the old by showing how it happens to resemble the new.

Equally, the most illustrious works of the past can help to confer a certain historical credibility on the contemporary artworks displayed alongside them—the association alone is enough to suggest that these new works will stand the test of time, with the approval of illustrious institutions such as the Royal Academy. And that is mostly the exercise here: “LIFE DEATH REBIRTH” is primarily a Bill Viola show, with a bit of Michelangelo fairy dust sprinkled on top.

Michelangelo—sculptor of David, painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—may be one of the few old names that still guarantees box-office success. But Viola guarantees success too. Over the last 40 years he has been shown around the world at all of the most prestigious modern and contemporary art museums. And this is not his first opportunity to show his videos alongside masterpieces from the Renaissance. Back in 2003, The National Gallery in London afforded him the unprecedented—and unrepeated—privilege, as a living artist, of a solo exhibition. “The Passions” collected together his video responses to the Old Masters which were, for the most part, slow-motion restagings of iconic paintings, with actors pulling pained expressions before being drenched with water.

Perhaps such grand opportunities come Viola’s way because he makes curators’ jobs easier: they are grateful that they do not have to forge tenuous links between old and new, because the references are already built into the work. All that is left for them to do is imply that Viola is the Old Master of this new medium, video; and it is a good deal, as it saves him the trouble of making such a bold claim for himself.

The same deal was struck again in 2017, when Viola was even given a show at the Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence, Michelangelo’s hometown—the very birthplace of the Renaissance. According to the promotional material, Viola has a “special relationship” with that city too, because it is “where his career in video art began when he was technical director of art/tapes/22, a video production and documentation centre, from 1974 to 1976.” The exhibition was audaciously titled: “Electronic Renaissance.” And it is impossible not to wonder whether this time, maybe, Viola felt some slight embarrassment when he saw that slogan emblazoned on posters around the old cobblestone streets.

To their credit, the curators of the Royal Academy’s exhibition do seem to have been embarrassed by the conceit of “LIFE DEATH REBIRTH.” In the first room, they are at pains to remind us in the wall text:

Many artists through the ages have engaged with the spiritual, but rarely with the purity and intensity shared by Bill Viola and Michelangelo. It is this commonality, rather than a suggestion that Viola is a ‘modern Michelangelo,’ that the exhibition illuminates.

Yet despite such pleading, we cannot help but compare when the works are displayed together; and the balance is even tipped in Viola’s favor because his works dwarf Michelangelo’s in scale. Also, video is so much more immediate, as a medium, than mere drawing.

Viola himself is quoted on the wall: “I happen to use video because…video (or television) is clearly the most relevant visual art form in contemporary life.”

He is quite right about that, as the brutally confrontational hang in the next room proves. All along one long wall is projected Viola’s “Nantes Triptych” (1992). The left video “panel” shows a woman giving birth while the right video “panel” simultaneously shows a death (actually that of the artist’s own mother). In the center there is a figure suspended under water, perhaps to represent the insubstantiality of the conscious phase in the cycle—the short process of living.

No events are more compelling to witness than birth and death, so we cannot look away. It becomes just as interesting to follow the reactions of the people in the room to the video, as they imaginatively chart their own positions in the cycle of life: during my visit, younger women were most noticeably horrified by the birth sequence—they squirmed, recoiled, even gasped and covered their eyes as the baby was at last pulled from the womb.

When the video ended, a few of the spectators turned to look at the opposite wall, to try to engage with a couple of small drawings by Michelangelo showing the “Madonna and Child.” But then, with a sudden popping sound, the video loop started again and the spectators all spun back towards the screens in perfect unison, without a second’s delay for a thought. Screens have a hold over us, automatically commanding our attention; and a drawing cannot hope to compete—at least, not for the moment.

As we proceed through the exhibition, it becomes clear that the immediacy of an image on a screen is also its limitation. Across from a row of some of Michelangelo’s most exquisitely finished drawings—including a number of the so-called “presentation” drawings which were made as personal gifts for the artist’s beloved student, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri (1509–87)—is a 19-minute-long video diptych by Viola showing a nude elderly man on one panel and nude elderly woman on the other, both of them slowly moving flashlights over their bodies to show us the wrinkling of their skin. The effect really is quite painterly, in a Baroque style, reminiscent of Caravaggio (1571–1610); but the similarity to painting is superficial because we do not forget that the performers are real people who belong to the real world—to our world—and not to the abstracted world of art.

Once you turn to Michelangelo’s drawings, the difference is obvious: the artist’s imaginative understanding extends into every single mark. And because all these marks are the expressive products of a singular intelligence, the effect is perfectly coherent. Therein lies beauty. A particularly ravishing drawing shows three of the Labours of Hercules, including his struggle with the many-headed hydra. We see the hero writhing as the monster, with its neck-like tentacles, bites at his muscular body from every angle; but there is no sense of panic, as Hercules turns his head to face his deadly challenger. Michelangelo has barely sketched in the Hydra, so our focus stays on the hero. We begin to see the monster as an apparition—as Hercules’s own nightmare—to which he is now awakening. And Michelangelo’s drawing of the subject affects us like a dream of our own. With such masterly drawing, aesthetic coherence and intellectual coherence are one and the same thing—we feel it, just as the artist conceived it. Nothing is arbitrary; all is created and expressed with control, by design—the Italian word for drawing is disegno.

Wall text tells us: “Bill Viola has consistently used video as an expressive tool for depicting inner states, rather than as a documentary device.”

It is true, at least, that he has tried to make video into a more imaginative medium, equivalent to drawing and painting. But the futility of his efforts is made painfully obvious when we look back at Michelangelo. And it does not even matter how his talent measures up. The basic reason is that photography is always, by its very nature, a “documentary device.” As an “expressive tool,” it is relatively blunt.

All the critics—and the visitors to the show, too—seem to find the “Nantes Triptych” so much more appealing than Viola’s other works. That is simply because the “Nantes Triptych” shows—or documents—a real birth and a real death. All the other videos are staged with actors, but without drama or narrative conflict, in the hope that special effects and fancy lighting will make them look like artistic expressions.

Most of Viola’s work is a sham—and it is, inadvertently, a disparagement of old drawing and painting too. Remember that there is also that central panel to the “Nantes Triptych,” with one of Viola’s suspended bodies—one of his videos attempting to be a painting—and no one ever bothers to watch it. Michelangelo draws us into an imaginative world of endless depth; Viola may give us deep pools of water, but he cannot dissolve the screen—he cannot make us go imaginatively beyond it—so the result is ultimately shallow.

The shallowness of Viola’s work is ensured by his narrow frame of reference. Michelangelo could draw his own visual poetry out of the story of Phaeton, whom we see falling from the sky after his own father, Apollo, sent a thunderbolt to stop his chariot—the Sun—in order to save the Earth. Or he could delight in representing a bacchanal of children, to explore the notion of innocence and its relation to the primitive. Or he could show a group of archers, urged on by the flames of passion, who yet miss their target without the divine guidance of Love.

Michelangelo’s artistic expressions depended on his interpretations of a shared cultural inheritance, which was classical and Christian. His audience knew all the stories and understood their implications; they were treasured as the wisdom of the ancients. Mystery was the way to contemplation. Our times are different; that old frame of reference has been junked, and never replaced, so Viola—and actually any other ambitious artist working today—has little access to such sophisticated ideas. On top of that, he has no intelligible way to represent them.

Viola starts with nothing, and he arrives at nothing. He says that he is searching for “the image that is not an image.” And that, despite using photographic media, he is “not interested in ‘realistic’ rendering.” Then he gets even more muddled:

Sacred art seems very close because of its symbolic nature. I am interested not so much in the image whose source lies in the phenomenal world, but rather the image as artefact, or result, or imprint, or even wholly determined by some inner realisation. It is the image of that inner state and as such must be considered completely accurate and realistic.

The sacred; the symbolic; the inner realization; the real: how do they connect? Does he know, or are these just abstract terms to sprinkle over his art like another special effect? We have to agree on what is sacred, before we find its symbols. To come to such an inner realization—to find some truth—surely we have to believe in something greater than ourselves.

Viola has travelled widely and, is it claimed, he has learnt from Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian Mysticism. He might imagine that he is producing the sacred art of the New Age, where doctrines can be mixed and matched freely to suit any personal whim (there is something very Californian about his art). But that is probably part of the reason why we soon sense a disturbing lack of conviction. The videos start to appear like so many smug, visual warblings about spirituality as an attitude to strike.

Viola may well have noticed that the most powerful art is religious; but all he does is borrow its stylings, without asking its reasons. To him, the “sacred” seems to mean little more than the iconic—just a certain aesthetic “intensity” which he finds mysterious, but which he calls “mystical.”

Despite Viola’s spiritual aspirations, his videos are clearly products of the Scientistic Age. His approach to art is anthropological, not humanist and not seriously religious. Indeed he wants his images to seem like “artifacts” or “imprints.” One of his weakest video installations, called “The Dreamers” (2013), shows videos of seven people of different ages and races, each on their own screen and, as usual, under water. They hardly move, apart from the odd bubble of air escaping. Posing there in their modern clothes, they look like specimens preserved in formaldehyde, just floating. Waiting to die? Waiting to be venerated as saints? But for what?

If, in 500 years time, people look back at this work—as we are now looking back at Michelangelo—what will it tell them about our culture? They will gain no direct insight into current ideas. But they may see how, at this strange moment in time, it was all right for people to think of, dream of, and believe in, nothing else but themselves. People were important because they existed—that was enough. Viola tends to represents human beings as dying organisms, briefly struggling to keep afloat, by instinct—religion is reduced to an instinct, too—and for no other special reason.

There is far more expression to be found in the Easter Island heads, than there is here. Those giant, blank, stony faces still tell us of an ancient people’s belief in greater forces; and their long stares out to sea demonstrate the people’s desire to know what went on past the horizon. Their sculptors were evidently motivated by a faith in something beyond. Viola’s art, for all its supposed spiritual uplift, has a deadening effect, because its repetitive treatment of mortality includes no concept of “beyond”—and that is the source of all imaginative power, and the real subject of art.

Before Viola’s art becomes too oppressive, it is merely irritating. We do not have to worry so much about its effect through the ages because, whatever the curators wish to imply, it seems unlikely that it will stand the test of time. Viola gives us a figure silhouetted against a wall of fire: if anyone ever dared to paint such a thing, it would be dismissed as irredeemable kitsch by the very same critics who praise it as a piece of video art. Novelty often gets a free pass; yet video art already has its clichés. You walk around these galleries, occasionally shaken by a sudden rumbling bass note; desperate sighs and agonized cries melt into the background, along with amplified splishes and sploshes; and everything has to end in static noise.

Viola has little in common with the Old Masters, and much in common with Damien Hirst (b.1965). They both rely on the same formula, for their success: grand scale and high production values, to confront us with weighty themes like death, at least in the titles for their work—glitz with gravitas. Hirst called his 1991 installation of a dead shark: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Viola called his videos of the elderly man and woman shining lights on themselves: “Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity.” However in Michelangelo’s drawings, the deepest ideas can speak for themselves.

In the last room there is the most beautiful drawing of “The Resurrection” (c.1532–33), and the curators’ explanatory note for it is instructive: 

Although this drawing depicts the Resurrection, there is also a suggestion of the Ascension in Christ’s weightless, effortless rise from the tomb, drawn upwards to the divine light of Heaven. Michelangelo combines the material Resurrection with the spiritual Ascension, both body and soul rescued from death.

The pose of Christ here, it occurs to me, happens to express exactly the transcendence that Viola always seeks. But Michelangelo could only arrive at this pose through an understanding of—or even a belief in—the concept of salvation. And because he could draw like a God.


Jacob Willer is a painter, critic and historian of art, living in London.


  1. Samuel says

    Physically unaesthetic,
    Emotionally vapid,
    Spiritually degenerate,
    Collectively, inspiring disgust

    • Maximilian schubert says

      Almost verbatim Adolph Hitler’s view on the art of his time.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Even a stopped clock tells tthe right time twice a day

      • Peter from Oz says

        Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day

  2. St. Peter’s is not a cathedral. Rome’s cathedral is St. John Lateran. But thanks for this interesting reflection.

    • Toby Young says

      Thanks for pointing that out. I have corrected it to Basilica.

  3. northernobserver says

    I like Viola’s are but I like it for what it is: modern, ironic and detached. It’s like a commercial chocolate bar. You consume it and forget about it.

  4. Sam Mazzuchelli says

    I thought modern artists threw out the “Old Masters” as irrelevant back in the early 20th century. I would certainly travel to see a Michelangelo exhibition. On the other hand, who’s Viola?

  5. Maximilian Schubert says

    Some thoughtful tidbits here, and Viola has never been my favorite, but off the bat this is a classic example of an academic, or defender of the academic tradition treating less conventional and more recent art with a dismissive assumption that it is, if not a scam, then clearly vapid and inferior.

    This is the second such essay on art that I’ve read in Quillette that was well below mediocre for the field (and trust me, it’s a profoundly mediocre one). The better art is, as a rule, the less people it’s for. Remember that. The 50 artists (in all of history) most people can name are exceptions to this rule, but weren’t always, and Picasso still sucks if you ask probably half of America. Not defending Viola or the curatorial position, but it sure sounds like it was a lot of work, and worth a try.

    Phillistines think they know what good or important art is because they like some art, and that their opinion is as valid as anyone’s. They are completely wrong – they’re opinion on art (or its past and future) isn’t worth a shit unless you measure it in ticket sales at the cinema. I’m not saying the author is one, only that he might encourage them.

    I’ve read so much on here that I’ve loved but occasionally someone comments that for someone who’s deep in the subject, the piece was frustrating. Now I know what they mean.

    • Peter from Oz says

      I have always thought that there are certain tropes that are really necessary in this life. One of those is the defender of the academic tradition scoffing at modern art. The new must always be challenged. Otherwise we fall into the trap of believing that novelty is more important than substance.
      A quick look back at some old art magazines from the past 50 years will show how much modern art has been forgotten, and how the traditionally minded critics were correct to see such modern art as tendentious rubbish.

  6. Stephanie says

    It’s sad that museums think the work of great artists cannot stand on their own, and feel the need to lend relevance to some contemporary artist. The exhibition sounds vapid.

    Thank you for the article, this was an interesting read.

  7. Viola and Michelangelo have something very important in common: white privilege.

    Just kidding.

    This review raised some interesting points. It seems almost none of today’s artists have any chance at immortality. Contemporary art is often fun or fascinating, but rarely do I get the sense that these works or names will be remembered. Maybe Bansky, but why? Because he basks in anonymity? Because by doing street art he engages with the wider public? In any case ego often seems to interfere with output. Then again, it didn’t hurt Bernini. Maybe you’re allowed an ego when you’re just that good.

  8. Andy Patton says

    “Off the bat this is a classic example of an academic, or defender of the academic tradition treating less conventional and more recent art with a dismissive assumption that it is, if not a scam, then clearly vapid and inferior.”

    I might have thought the same, had I not seen the Viola show at the Strozzi, together with the works he paired with the Uccellos in Santa Maria Novella and the video installation that was situated with Mike’s final Pieta. For anyone who admires his work,
    it’s a blessing that you didn’t see them. (For the record, I visited the Viola exhibition with one of my closest friends, who is a scholar of Viola’s work.)

    I really thought highly of Viola before this, especially his works with the diver in extreme slo-mo. (My bias is towards contemporary art.) But gak! His video by the Uccello Flood where a host of figures is blasted by a firehose was just stupid. The video installation of persons apparently lined up to see the Pieta struck me as mawkish. In Florence, many other fans of contemporary art—and even of Viola—were saying that he should never again be banned from using water in his work. You’d have to have seen the works in situ, but jeez, stupid, stupid, stupid. Not to mention self-aggrandizing. Not to mention shallow—yes, that’s the right word.

    The respect I had for Viola is probably lost forever. Gak! Nonetheless, I feel badly stating this as I just hate the “of course, Mike’s work made Viola look shallow” idea. Yet it was Viola who made Viola look shallow. There are contemporary works that wouldn’t suffer so badly by comparison—William Kentridge or Rebecca Belmore to name two.

    • Maximilian schubert says

      I’ve always found Viola to be sappy and corny too – what seems to have been important to his work was the access to the high-end technology, which is now consumer grade.

      I just found the article to be completely stupid, it seems that the author pines for a time when people who made art actually believed in Jesus and therefor made better art, meant what they painted, and knew what purpose it was for. It’s a good thing that we live in an age of reason, and that artists like viola can take some of the tropes of the renaissance and try to use their power, minus the bullshit. The results in this case might be cheesy, but that’s not the point. The author is an academic in his own work and conservative in his preferences and echos the same arguments spewed forth since the romantic period.

      • Smartassacus says

        @Maximilian Schubert: you’re not an artist yourself by any chance are you? If you are you must be a triggered contemporary artist screaming that someone doesn’t like or get contemporary art. But you yourself said above

        “The better art is, as a rule, the less people it’s for. Remember that.”

        I’m quoting you directly. So if we’re all too stupid to get your work or Bill Viola’s or whatever it is you like or value why are you bothering to yell at us anonymous nobodies in the comments under an article that doesn’t matter anyway?

        Maybe we’re all dumb peasants in your eyes and will never be able to get what you do or understand what you like or value so you’re surely wasting your time trying to convince us. After all, you seem to think artists should NOT believe in what they’re trying to communicate.

        Or are you saying artists who don’t believe in what they depict are somehow superior to artists who don’t?

        I’m not sophisticated enough for that kind of thinking, I’m afraid.

        If you’re an artist, good luck and I wish you all the best with your career. With an attitude like that I hope you can actually sell your paintings, or video art, or performances, or whatever it is you do.

        It must be hard to make a living when you despise most of your potential customers, unless you work in fashion or something.

        • Maximilian Schubert says

          Not yelling at anybody, and not triggered. And I certainly don’t think an art novice – or even someone hostil to art – is likely to be stupid. What makes you think I would despise anybody? I’ve never despised anyone, and if I did it wouldn’t be for not being an expert in the field of art.

          People get pissed – or triggered – when you tell them that when it comes to certain types and qualities of art, their opinion is uninformed or stuck in the past, or not as credible as someone else’s. But like any field, this is often true. My point is that when it comes to art, uniquely, that everyone has their preferences, and they mistake them for expertise.

          But the ‘phillistine’ reaction to difficult stuff I was talking about is pretty well exemplified in the tone of your reply. Just chill dude.

          • Smartassacus says

            It’s putting words in my mouth to say I didn’t like this exhibition. I can’t judge an exhibition I’ve never been to. Also, how do you know I don’t like contemporary art? I’m just questioning how anybody makes an honest living from it. But here you are telling us not to make value judgements, when you also say (I quote again)

            “The better art is, as a rule, the less people it’s for. Remember that.”

            Good luck to you trying to square that circle. You also said

            “Phillistines think they know what good or important art is because they like some art, and that their opinion is as valid as anyone’s. They are completely wrong – they’re opinion on art (or its past and future) isn’t worth a shit unless you measure it in ticket sales at the cinema.”

            How do you make that cohere with the following?

            “everyone has their preferences, and they mistake them for expertise.”

            So you’re one of the experts? But your idea of an expert is someone who agrees with you, because the guy who wrote this article is pretty clearly an expert too, and you haven’t proved that his opinion is less informed than yours, or more stuck in the past. So what’s your unique claim to authority? Asking out of genuine curiosity.

            You also basically just called some guy “Hitler” in the comments, which is why I said you’re triggered. You can probably try to weasel out by saying “but I just compared his remarks to Hitler, not him himself”. If you do you probably need a stronger argument.

  9. C Young says

    I went to see it today. I thought “Nantes Tryptich” obscene and dehumanising.

    What is going through the mind of a guy, who when their own mother is dieing in a hospital bed, is up a step ladder adjusting the focus on a video camera in order to provide paying strangers with a tiny buzz?

    What kind of brutalised sensibilities do we have, if corporately, we need a Bill Viola to violate his own family for the sake of some low grade thrill?

  10. Maximilian Schubert says

    @smartassacus – man, I don’t follow what you’re saying, and I don’t think you’re reading what I’ve actually wrote. Bad faith territory now. Just put it down man.

    • Smartassacus says

      You’ve got every right not to answer straight questions. Feel free not to bother. But do you know what “bad faith” actually is? Because you compared some other guy’s opinions on art to Adolf Hitler’s in the comments.

  11. Davidson Gigliotti says

    I have some background in video art and in writing about video. I’m also an admirer of Bill Viola’s work. He carried video art further than most, always thoughtful work in my view. My sense here is that the main complaint is the work’s juxtaposition with the work of Michelangelo. I have reason to know that it is very unlikely that Viola himself had much to do with the mounting of the piece in question. This was almost certainly a curatorial decision that Bill had nothing to do with.

    I had the privilege of seeing another of Viola’s works, Going Forth by Day, in Berlin back around 2002. Then, too, a wall text comparison was made of Viola and this piece with Giotto and his work at the Scrovegni Chapel, upon which the piece was loosely based. Knowing Bill as I did, it never occurred to me that promoting Bill as the Giotto of our day was Bill’s idea, more, probably, the idea of John Hanhardt, who curated Bill in those days. Hanhardt, who has curated shows of Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, Ira Schneider, Frank Gillette, and many others, and, I have to say, also included me in one of his shows, sometimes went for romantic spectacle.

    That said, I think we all agree that positioning contemporary artists in this way is a bad curatorial mistake, unfair to the artist and to the viewers as well.

    • Tersitus says

      Thanks, DG, for a bit of added perspective. Don’t know Viola from shinola, but my own pedestrian tastes make me think you have a point about the juxtaposition as “a curatorial mistake.” An excess of that bugbear “cultural appropriation” for cheap effect? I’d love to hear some in-the-know rationale for such a set of choices— but I guess the art world isn’t known for providing a lot of program notes. Still, “art and idea” doesn’t exclude “art and bad idea.”

  12. Spencer Street says

    The content on this website is, sadly, becoming all too predictable, All I have to do is read the headline, and I can pretty much guess which side of the issue will be promoted. It’s starting to remind me of when I was a kid growing up in Raleigh, NC, and not-yet Senator Jesse Helms was just a blowhard editorialist on the local nightly news. Once you knew the subject of his screed, you knew where he was going with it.

    “Ughh… modern art… my kid could do better than that…”

    Blow me.

  13. Giambolgona says

    Having visited the exhibition I think the author of the piece has given it a good representation. I have always admired Viola’s work, and you can always see him striving to push the medium of video forwards. But there is little doubt for me that video is a restrictive medium as it makes people passive receivers of images and information rather than as active participants in them. Drawings and painting and sculpting by hand is a natural extension of our thoughts and the information given is not overwhelming and does not move so it requires the viewer to search for meaning and understanding and this is where we take the most from a work.

    Is it true, as the author says, that a lack of belief in anything higher than ourselves results in shallower art? This would confine a whole lot of 20th century art to the background. I think there is plenty of depth to be found in the everyday struggles and surrounding beauty we see in the world, and many very talented artists from Watteau to Picasso to Monet have covered just that. To believe in something higher, to overcome doubts, is not something I have managed to achieve, but I can see how it could elevate meaning, and looking at Michelangelo’s drawings in this exhibition there is so much more feeling, mystery, inner struggle and compassion in them that in any single video by Viola. I can’t help but agree that some of this was aided by Michelangelo’s faith.

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