Michelangelo’s The Dream, as haunting a vision as has ever been put down on paper, will be in New York for the next few months, in the Frick Collection’s exhibition “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery.” The dreamer is a handsome young man, his naked muscular body decisively, dramatically posed. But the dream itself is tangled, ambiguous, dramatically confounding. And therein lies the power of this famous composition, which embraces more contradictory energies than one imagines could be contained within a piece of paper not sixteen inches high. Executed with black chalk that achieves a plangent monumentality, the sheet dates from around 1533, when Michelangelo was in his late fifties and for a time embraced drawing as a freestanding medium, exploring complex ideas he probably had no intention of realizing in marble or fresco. Here Michelangelo, that master of imperious iconic images, is in an almost intimate mood; the drawing may well be among those made for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the youthful nobleman Michelangelo loved.
Who is the young man in The Dream? And what is he thinking, what is he feeling? He leans on a globe. A winged figure blows a horn at his head. Beneath him are heaped theatrical masks. And he is ringed by a gathering of flickering, shadowy, entangled human bodies, some wildly erotic. This youthful, heroic nude certainly seems to be energized, his thick torso diagonally angled, his body almost catapulted through space. But the muscular energy is also somewhat equivocal, with a countermovement, a kind of withdrawal, suggested by the right arm that circles the chest and the right leg bent at the knee. There is an ambiguity about the pose, which is inward-turning and outward-flowing, stressful and ecstatic. The result is a magnificently agitated image, a drawing that feels simultaneously hard and soft, unyielding and yielding. And Michelangelo underscores that impression by applying the black chalk with a velvety erotic touch that still leaves us in no doubt as to the steely anatomical intelligence animating each form.
Art historians, not surprisingly, have been endlessly fascinated by The Dream, and often return to variations on Erwin Panofsky’s Neoplatonic interpretation, which dates from the 1930s. There is general agreement that the vices or sins that challenge the human soul are represented by the smaller figures, some only vaguely evoked, that swarm around the bold young man; they are conceived as swirling, interpenetrating arabesques, by turns delicate, ribald, and demonic. As for the angelic trumpeter, that figure swooping down from the heavens is surely awakening the dreamer to some higher state. Two years ago, the Courtauld Gallery in London mounted an entire exhibition dedicated to The Dream, with catalogue essays in which scholars aired complexly interlocking theories about this drawing, whose title was first mentioned by Vasari, the artist’s biographer, four years after Michelangelo’s death. In the end, no theory exactly fits all the intricacies of the case, which may well suggest that Michelangelo was allowing for some element of interpretive improvisation or open-endedness. The Dream is about physical beauty and spiritual beauty, and Michelangelo cannot or will not disentangle the two.
The Dream explodes the ordinary pleasures of allegory, which are the pleasures of piecing together a puzzle. Michelangelo’s puzzle, complete but still puzzling, is irreducible allegory—a whole thought to be grasped through the experiencing authority of the eye. In the new volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters—it covers 1926 to 1927—there is a fascinating passage in which Eliot tells the critic and poet R. P. Blackmur that a poem of his is “too thoughtful.” Eliot goes on to say that “in turning thought into poetry it has to be fused into a more definite pattern of immediately apprehensible imagery, imagery which shall have its own validity and be immediately the equivalent of, and indeed identical with, the thought behind it.”
This comment goes some way toward explaining what Michelangelo has done with The Dream. Instead of overthinking the iconography, Michelangelo has transformed his ambiguous ideas into an “immediately apprehensible imagery.” What we are given is Michelangelo’s heroic young man, who is thought incarnate, the spirit forever affirmed and undone by the beauty of the flesh.
Jed Perl is art critic at The New Republic.