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Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back: A Religious Deconstruction
The rolling field of flesh that is Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back radiates a rhythmic sensuality so intimate that it is easy to imagine the heat from Michelangelo’s hand has just left the page. Each brushstroke of striking musculature hits the eyes afresh, the light from every tendon diffusing in powerful waves. The back is like a blossoming flower, its center intricate while the edges of its petals blur and soften as it turns into sunlight. The real significance of Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back, however, lies not only in its physical accuracies or technical beauty but in its staggering ability to captivate both appreciation and imagination, to accommodate both detail and rough edges.
Central to this sketch, of course, is the structure, momentum, and design of this man’s bare body. The way the sinewy right shoulder melts into the the chaos of the outstretched arm draws attention to the right half of the sketch, as does the subtly angled right thigh. There is skillful depiction of both angular and linear momentum: angular in the way the left shoulder is pulled back just enough to place it on a different plane than the right, creating a slight torque through the arms, and linear in the way the side of the head tilts longingly towards the right arm. The recurring right/left dichotomy is again meaningful within the back itself as the left side has small waves of indent where the man holds tension in his upper arm and shoulder to support the spear while the muscles of the right side are more protruded instead of dimpled to evince the extension of the right arm. Another fascinating facet of the sketch is how easy it is to envision tightness in the stomach from the way man’s waist is delicately pinched inward, which adds a layer of dimension to this otherwise back-centric sketch. The deep intensity of the valley-like spine signals youthful strength and invokes vivid visions of dripping, glistening sweat.
In the scope of the sketch’s tight focus there is lack of two fundamental aspects: color and facial features. But the lack of definition or color in the face combined with the extreme reality of the back emphasizes the humanity that connects us all instead of the individuality we hold in our expressions, facial features, or skin tone. This stress on universality opens up some curious avenues of thought. If what we all have in common is our physical bodies, are we defined by our animalistic primal instincts and beastly appetites? And does this bitingly sharp definition of the human back without a clear context, background, or head mean we can understand the physical and material but nothing beyond? The sketch offers hints. There is an Abrahamic inflection in the texture and subject matter of the sketch that draws upon our ancestral roots in a patriarchal, agricultural society. To God, the sketch whispers, every human is like a faceless servant put on this earth to carry out His command. Hopefully, the tilted, longing neck says, all our back-breaking work in this worldly life will translate into the unknown, unparalleled, un-sketchable promise of Heaven.
If every day is just another spear that humans throw into the abyss, hoping it will land where God wishes it to land, Michelangelo has–through taut muscles and uncertain surroundings–brilliantly captured the tension of a universally human dilemma: how can we believe in a God we cannot see? In combining the richness of this sculpted back with the lightly penciled spear, the sketch suggests that we can overcome the need for empirical evidence. The way the spine stands straight and dignified and the left arm flexes with vitality implies that our true strength will not come from spears or tools but from the perfect bodies He has given us. This also emphasizes God’s skill as the master craftsman; any man-made tool like the spear is nothing compared to the absolute glory of the sophisticated, seamless human body. In leaving the head area ambiguous, the sketch says that while our bodies are capable and are up to the task of serving God, often times our minds have more trouble cementing an unbreakable internal conviction to Him.
In conclusion, Giorgio Vasari’s Michelangelo chapter of The Lives of the Artists epitomizes the significance and meaning of this piece by drawing attention to another;
Michelangelo finished the figure of Moses, a statue in marble five arms lengths high, which no modern statue could ever rival in beauty…it seems that while you gaze at the statue, you feel the desire to ask for a veil to cover his face, so splendid and radiant does it appear to onlookers. And in the marble, Michelangelo has perfectly depicted the divinity God has endowed upon his most holy face (434).
Michelangelo had no trouble sculpting the face of the holy Moses, but in Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back the facelessness accentuates the humility and morality of the sketch’s very human subject. The fact that the power of Moses’ expression as so sculpted by Michelangelo brings up the urge to “ask for a veil to cover his face” shows that the purpose Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back is not to immediately, viscerally dazzle or distract viewers with flashy colors or facial expressions but to–through simple binaries and chiseled physique–evince raw, ubiquitous truths that cut to the core of the human experience.
Vasari, Giorgio, Julia C. Bondanella, and Peter Bondanella. The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Isha Fazili is a Kashmiri freshman originally from Upstate New York in the Liberal Studies Core program at New York University. Academically, she is interested in studying language as a great, tangible exteriorization of our species memory and the ways in which we can channel this power of language in the marketing world. On campus she is involved with TedXNYU, Student Alumni Council, Aftab Literary Magazine, the Feminist Society, Admissions Ambassadors, and Alternative Breaks.