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British Museum's Michelangelo exhibition reviews: what the critics say

The British Museum's new Michelangelo exhibition spotlights the final years of one the greatest artists to have ever lived.

Michelangelo: the last decades examines the last 30 years of the Italian artist's life, a period he spent in Rome and which turned out to be his most productive.

With 50 exquisite drawings on display — all made between 1534 and 1564 and many from the British Museum's own unrivalled collection — visitors can get properly up close to the Renaissance master, who was producing these astonishing works when he was already Europe's most celebrated artist.

But — is it any good?

Three chalk drawings in a composite image showing human figures
Works by Michelangelo Buonarro. © The Trustees of the Bri/sh Museum

Well, the critics broadly all think yes. Although some of the Michelangelo exhibition reviews do have significant reservations.

Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard loved it. Her five-star-review says that "it is the drawings that make this exhibition" and that the final space — where the works all focus on Michelangelo's impending mortality — is filled with art that "may be the most beautiful things you will ever see." Surely you can't get much higher praise?

Eddy Frankel for Time Out also praised the final room and it's "incredible" drawings.

"Jaw-dropping, atmospheric, beautiful, powerful stuff" was his verdict. His four-star review of the show sums it up that this is an "intimate little visual biography of the final years of his life."

The art exhibition has been given four-stars by the Telegraph too, with their art critic Alastair Sooke praising the fact that the British Museum doesn't seem to have shied away from Michelangelo's Catholic faith.

"If only other prominent museums today refrained from seeing everything through the interpretative lens of current preoccupations" Sooke says.

He does offer some criticism. "The a bit bookish: prepare for a history lesson in religious schism and literary taste."

A drawing of a winged bird attacking a human figure
Michelangelo Buonarro, the punishment of Tityus.1532. Royal Collecton Trust © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

And Sooke points out that a section dedicated to the artist's architecture "will appeal mostly to geeks."

The dry approach is the exhibition's biggest flaw according to Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. "Where has all the lust and longing gone?" is the headline of his three-star review.

Jones believes Michelangelo's drawings don't live up to his more monumental sculptural and religious works, but he thinks they can still be engaging. Yet here he criticises the British Museum for making an exhibition on them "dull."

They've done it "by taking the drama out of his life" Jones says. "So much fun is excluded...I found it hard work" he says.

It's a similar verdict for Laura Freeman in the Times. "Apart from the drawings by the great man himself, most of it feels dogged, not spectacular" she writes.

Her main complaint is that there is too much filler. It "could have been a tenth of the size and captivated even more" Freeman concludes.

Still, perhaps that means you do get your money's worth. And maybe the last room is worth the admission alone?

Michelangelo: the last decades runs at the British Museum in London until 28 July 2024. Buy the accompanying catalogue by curator Sarah Vowles here.

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