The exhibition at the Royal Academy which pairs the work of Bill Viola, the best known contemporary video artist, with the drawings of Michelangelo has had a pretty good drubbing in the national press, as if it is illegitimate to think that there might be some connection in the approach of two artists across time and from completely different visual cultures and that it is necessarily hubristic to compare them. It is true that in the second of the galleries the Michelangelo tondo together with some of his great presentation drawings are confronted on the wall opposite by big screen images of birth, childhood and death in Viola’s Nantes Triptych (1992). This is a (deliberately) radical and unexpected way of looking at – and thinking about – the work of Michelangelo. But the great majority of the exhibition consists of large-scale and immersive work by Bill Viola.
I still greatly admire the first work in the exhibition The Messenger, which I first encountered in the nave of Durham Cathedral at dusk in late August 1996. I had never seen Five Angels for the Millennium (2001), an incredibly impressive work, particularly as seen in Gallery III. And the final work in the exhibition is Fire Woman (2005), a film of resurrection, fire and brimstone. Yes, maybe it has a touch of Hollywood in it. But I don’t object to technical magnificence. And nor did Michelangelo.