David as canvas

Re-contextualizing the world’s most famous statue

A. Victor Coonin
October 30, 2017 - 15:02

Michelangelo’s David is the world’s most famous statue. It continues to inspire and have significance five centuries after it was first installed in piazza della Signoria. The marble that was to become the David was obtained at the end of 1464 from the mountains lining the western coast of Italy, just above Carrara. In the spring of 2017, Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra returned the David (or, at least, his head) to Carrara in a mixed media mural measuring 10 by 11 meters. Kobra is the latest in a long line of artists to work with the theme of the David in contemporary art; in each case, he is given a new meaning and context. What follows is an adaptation of a chapter from my book From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David, in which I explore this phenomenon.

Ph. Matteo Dunchi

The list of causes espoused by way of using the David can never be exhaustive as the statue will continue to be manipulated to serve social, political and artistic ends, as indeed it should be. He may be used to comment on armed conflict, on gender, on aesthetic issues or on the state of art itself.

Michelangelo’s David readies for battle, and the context of this fight and the protagonist’s heroism are easily accepted. The British artist known as Banksy questioned these assumptions with a modified copy of the David as displayed in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for a 2009 exhibit titled “Banksy vs Bristol Museum”. Here, the David was adorned with a suicide bomber’s vest and a bandana covering his nose and mouth. The underdog biblical warrior of undoubted purpose and action was thus turned into an anonymous contemporary fighter (arguably, a terrorist, freedom fighter, suicide bomber or homicide bomber) to disturbing effect, which questions motive, methods and even heroism itself.

David has also been used to highlight societal concerns about race and sexuality. Andy Warhol used the David as a starting point for his portrait of the African-American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s. Basquiat was bothered by the fact that blacks were portrayed neither sufficiently nor realistically in western art. Warhol had already made famous silk-screen portraits of white celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. In 1984, Warhol made a silk-screen portrait print of Basquiat wearing a jock strap and standing in the pose of Michelangelo’s David. (Basquiat, in turn, did a portrait of Andy Warhol as a banana!) Warhol’s image elevates Basquiat to iconic status both by using his familiar techniques, already widely celebrated, and by using the David as a blatant reference. Though Warhol was notoriously reticent to interpret his own images, this portrait confronts notions of race, beauty, sexual attraction and masculinity in the artist’s typical seductive and suggestive manner.

A more emphatic comment on gender is made by Italian artist Mauro Perucchetti, who makes “Hip Pop Art” and has presented a female version of the David, called Michelangelo 2020: A Tribute to Women, in several exhibitions, including an installation outside the Louvre in Paris in 2013. As a sister image, Perucchetti’s sculpture questions the very “maleness” of Michelangelo’s design and offers a biting commentary on gender issues. He describes his statue as a “tribute to women, particularly to their role in history as the ‘underdog’.” Perucchetti envisions a society that has moved beyond traditional gender roles and his use of Michelangelo’s statue, one of the most admired male nudes, to question gender stereotypes becomes a visual vehicle towards that end.

With all of these artists, we are confronted by transformations of the David that implicitly question why he is so famous. There is no one attribute that makes the David unique. His fame is due, in large part, to the multivalent meanings that his image offers. When the David is made female, we consider his maleness. When he is made black, we confront his race, and when he is a shadow, we consider his substance. With new weaponry we might question his role as combatant and, when wounded, we might see him as a victim.



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