Holding Hands with Michelangelo

I’ve always wished I could draw. As a kid I’d watch my Dad’s girlfriend sitting at her big slanted artist’s table, drawing grids and sketching out her work. I loved her hands. I loved how she sharpened her thick pencils with knives, the sweet-smelling curls of the coloured wood, the bruised white of the giant pebble erasers. It was like a sorcerer’s magic kit. But instead of the instant alakazam of magic, her art was slow. It built up in lines and layers, you could see the subject appearing gradually, and my excitement would grow as I began to see the picture coming to life. Art has to be waited for. You have to be patient for it. I like that. 

An artist friend of mine asked to draw me recently. I thought he was mental, but said yes. I felt strange knowing he was picking a picture of me to work from, though I would have felt stranger being in the same room as he did it, and I felt even stranger when I learned the picture would be hanging at an exhibition in New York. I felt naked. An uninteresting subject, undeserving of such attention. He is a wonderful artist, can somehow capture a more condensed essence of someone’s spirit in his graphite lines than a photo would, but once done I couldn’t quite let myself look at the portrait he did of me for more than a few moments at a time. I felt shy that I had been drawn, and I felt shy that he had spent time capturing my face. Perhaps I was shy that the hours he had spent on it were hours spent looking into my soul without my being there. Like I’d left him in my bedroom rooting around while I went out.

That’s what art does I suppose. Communicates something of the soul that we can’t express in other ways. 

I met up with my friend for a drink this weekend and we talked a bit of art. I wanted to know how long the pictures took, if he felt differently when he drew people he knew and loved rather than strangers. We talked about art that moved us. I told him that when I had seen Michelangelo’s Pieta in Florence a few years ago, the Deposition, I had been so overwhelmed by being able to get so close to it that I was overcome by gallery mischief. It was a small dark room. The newly dead Jesus was being held by Nicodemus and the two Marys, mother and friend. Entombed in marble shaped by fingers and tools hundreds of years ago, and still here, still being seen, still moving us. One man’s endeavours with earthly materials to create art. There’s something about Jesus that will always strike us. He embodies a part of all of us, lying there. Our wretchedness in life. The child sacrificed to the nature of Man; innocence eaten by a hard cruel world. We see a part of ourselves in him. Perhaps that’s what art is. Making a singular spotlit beauty, a tangible truth of the things that make us all the same.

The mischief rose up. I needed to touch what Michelangelo had touched. I had to. It was too close to me not to. I waited until the security guard was looking the other way and then I lay my palm on Jesus’s shoulder, let my fingers fall gently down his sinewy arm. Felt pity and stillness and the weight of channelled time. When the security guard twitched his head towards me I let my hand drop and left. Once outside my hand felt warm. Glowing. I licked my palm because I didn’t want to lose the traces of it. I wanted to ingest it. I didn’t want it to be lost when I washed my hands. Me and Michelangelo, holding hands across the years.

There is something sanctified about art, about its placing in reverential light-controlled quiet. It can make a ponderer of the most irreligious. And though I have no particular love for religious art due to my non belief, there is something about the doomed man, the peaceful messiah, that you can’t help but find beautiful. I think you can still love Jesus even if you don’t believe in him. Just like you can love Atticus Finch or Albus Dumbledore even though they never existed as real men. And you can love the artists too for bringing them to life. For stilling you long enough to stand and stare, to think and to feel. 

Art makes us feel. It stands before us, quietly commanding our hearts to work.

My friend told me that the portrait he’d done of me had been sold in New York. That a stranger now owned it. Whatever part of me he caught is now theirs. I’m out there somewhere, no more or less worthy a subject that anyone else who has cells or breathes. I have no control over what that stranger might see, and no way of knowing how long I will hang there, which hands I will be passed to, or when that portrait might stop existing. It’s scary, but sort of freeing.