Martin Gayford

Back in the USSR

Two exhibitions on the Russian revolution; retrospectives of Giacometti, Whiteread, Hodgkin and Johns; and painters Sebastiano del Piombo and Chaim Soutine get a rare chance to shine

For much of 1517 Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy quarrying marble in the mountains near Carrara. From time to time, however, he received letters relating how his affairs were going in Rome. These contained updates on — among other matters — how his friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo was getting on with a big altarpiece which he hoped, with Michelangelo’s help, would vanquish their joint rival, Raphael.

This picture, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, has been in the National Gallery for almost 200 years now (it is No. 1 in the inventory of the collection). Next March it will be one of the centrepieces in an ambitious exhibition that inaugurates the new North Galleries, Michelangelo & Sebastiano: A Meeting of Minds (15 March–25 June).

This will assemble an impressive array of works by Sebastiano, plus two early, unfinished Michelangelo panel paintings from its own collection, drawings, plaster casts of his sculpture and one, poignant marble: the first version of the Risen Christ abandoned because of a nasty black flaw in the stone and finished unsympathetically in the 17th century.

Altogether, it should make for an intriguing mixture, but visually much of the heavy-lifting will fall on Sebastiano — a fascinating painter but not a superstar in art history. In the early 16th century, Raphael, eventually, was considered the victor. Will the public be more convinced by Sebastiano today?

The year 1917 saw not one but two Russian revolutions: in February and October. It is possible — who knows? — that 2017 might see some comparably startling reversals of the status quo. One thing, at least, is for sure. In London, there will be two Russian revolutionary exhibitions on offer. Wisely, the Royal Academy gets its one in first.

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