Michelangelo’s red-chalk study from life for the Sistine Chapel Creation of Adam is one of ninety or so sheets to be seen at the British Museum until 25 June. This drawing triumphantly illustrates Vasari’s claim that God had ‘decided to send into the world an artist who could be skilled in each and every craft, whose work alone would teach us how to attain perfection in design by correct drawing and by the use of contour and light and shadows, so as to obtain relief in painting’. If perfection and correctness were the end of art, Michelangelo could indeed be said to have found a route to at least one version of it.

The study shows the model’s upper body from the neck down. It includes most of the left arm and part of the right. The foot belonging to the bent left leg is obscured by the right leg which is shown to just below the knee. Shading defines the muscles and their relationships with such coherence that the significance of each mound and pucker of flesh would, you feel, be confirmed by the kind of anatomical dissection Michelangelo had in fact undertaken. As you scan linked areas of highlight and shadow you follow his hand as it reads the flow of energy across the body. The sinuous profiles that outline limbs and muscle groups knit the whole into a single, energetic entity.

The medium and style are matched in other studies from life. So too is the absence of head, hands and feet. Although these omissions are explained when you understand the place life studies had in the progress from sketch to finished work, Michelangelo’s way of editing the body in these drawings emphasises the degree to which the poses he invented began with twists and bends of the torso. In otherwise similar life studies by Raphael, it is the angle of the head and the direction of the gaze that seem to generate the pose.

Michelangelo’s powers of invention were astonishing – he boasted that he never used the same figure twice. In achieving this variety he puts the body into extreme, sometimes agonising positions. Studies for Day in the Medici chapel show the left arm twisted in an armlock. It is pulled back even further in the sculpture; maybe the pose demanded more than the model could deliver. The Last Judgment on the west wall of the Sistine Chapel, painted more than twenty years after the ceiling, is a curtain of bodies which rise to heaven or are dragged down to hell. They float in poses which we have now seen for real: broadcasts from space show weightless astronauts floating in attitudes Michelangelo prefigured in the ups and downs of the blessed and the damned.

Art tends to separate head and body – at the extreme into the genres of portrait and nude. To combine these has always been provocative. Goya’s Naked Maja and Lucian Freud’s pictures of nameable naked people take some of their force from the subjects’ unexpected willingness to let themselves be exposed. Stanley Spencer’s portrait of himself and Patricia Preece naked with a leg of lamb, and Dürer’s drawing of himself naked after an illness, are almost cruelly objective examinations which seem to say as much about mental as physical selves. A corollary of this is that in pictures of naked bodies which are not dealing in that kind of provocation, faces are often obscure (Degas’s bathers and dancers) or stereotyped (Cranach’s minxes and Boucher’s nymphs), or self-absorbed and unexpressive (Titian’s Venuses). Michelangelo’s subject is the human spirit manifested in the body. If faces were present in the studies, or if those in many of the finished works were not of such a uniform character, their variety and specificity would be a distraction. He was in pursuit of ideal beauty, uninterested in individuality and famously unwilling to paint or sculpt portraits. His one ideal body type – that of a young, athletic man – was minimally adapted to represent women or old men. There is a drawing here which works out the pose for a Virgin and Child. In it Mary’s body could be mistaken for that of a naked man. When players swap shirts at the end of a football match, many torsos are exposed that would have suited Michelangelo as models; few are topped by heads of his ideal type – the heads of his life models, too, might have failed in nobility or symmetry.

A more straightforward reason for the missing heads, hands and feet is the place life studies had in the generation of finished works. As far as the frescos went, the sequence was first a compositional drawing, then life studies of individual figures or parts of figures and finally a full-scale cartoon, from which the design was transferred to the plaster of the wall or ceiling. If a hand or arm would be obscured by another figure, Michelangelo gave only a summary account of it in the life drawing.

Faceless life drawings, like headless fragments of antique sculpture (the Torso Belvedere, which Michelangelo would have known, is illustrated in the catalogue), have a particular, accidental power. In them the body is able to speak for itself. When a figure from one of the drawings appears in a fresco it is transformed by having to share the stage with its own head. But other changes take place too: when the life model becomes Adam in the fresco, an imaginable sweaty, human reality is smoothed and plumped out. It is as though a tough hill-bred animal has been fattened and conditioned for market.

In fresco and sculpture, Michelangelo’s mastery of his ideal type is complete. The delineation of the body is assured. Its bends, turns and foreshortening are effected magisterially. The life studies were crucial in the achievement of this. Many other drawings, in particular those in which imagined poses are noted or explored and figures grouped together, are quite different. The energy now is not in the delineated body but in the marks themselves. Among the most perfunctory, but not least interesting, is a scribbled note to a stonemason which combines the dimensions of a block of marble and a sketch within the block of the river god waiting to be released from it. The architectural drawings range from the highly finished to the sparse and diagrammatic; in both, the inventiveness that put such strain on the human frame is used to crush or pull apart the canonical elements of classical architecture.

By contrast, the style of a group of presentation drawings – drawings that were ends in themselves – is smooth and polished. In the Crucifixion Michelangelo gave to Vittoria Colonna – a pious, aristocratic and extraordinarily well-connected lady – the athletic body becomes the vehicle of pathos, as it was in the pietàs which he carved both at the beginning and at the very end of his career as a sculptor. There are drawings for those here too. In drawings in which the supremely energetic body type found on the Sistine ceiling has been adapted to become a vehicle of emotion – above all, religious emotion – there are premonitions of the mood and manner of the works by his followers that would stretch the templates he left them to the limit. Long after he had ceased to paint he produced designs for other painters to work from. In this exhibition there is the full-scale Epifania cartoon from the 1550s, and a study from much earlier in which he gives Sebastiano del Piombo a pose for Lazarus.

Three drawings of the Crucifixion with mourning figures, made some time in the last decade of his long life (he lived to be 88), are given a space to themselves at the end of the exhibition. In them, the twist of the torso which links the Crucifixion he drew for Vittoria Colonna to any number of other eloquent poses has gone. The resilient energy of the ideal body has been drained. The figure, still monumental, has become ethereal and tragic. One can imagine, looking at these drawings, that the veil of multiple strokes which caress the outlines of the figures and the soft rubbed shadows which float over the muscles of Christ’s torso are the result of a less sure hand and a clouded eye. The skeined outlines, which in their linear configuration resemble the grooves made by the claw chisel on his unfinished sculptures, suggest a search for a single true line, as the chisel marks are a stage in the search for the one true surface. Because both leave open the question of just what that line or surface might be, a viewer is drawn to the notion that to see the work in this state is in some small degree to enter the mind of the artist at a point before firm lines and polished surfaces cancel out other possibilities, reducing the potential to the actual, and bringing with it the regret that can follow even triumphant completion. That Michelangelo is known to have changed his mind during the process of carving makes the unworked stone of his unfinished pieces genuinely mysterious. The remnant of the block is not here, as it is in some of Rodin’s works, as a rhetorical device, an elision which we can confidently imagine stripped away.

The drawings in the exhibition are from three sources: the majority from the British Museum itself, the others from the Teyler Museum in Haarlem and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Altogether they comprise about a sixth of all those now attributed to Michelangelo and include representatives of every kind of drawing he did. Because the collections of the three museums are substantial, Hugo Chapman, moving from group to group and study to study, makes his catalogue a life-and-times as well as monograph on the drawings (only at one point does he skip ahead because there is nothing in the exhibition relating to an important commission). It makes it unusually rewarding to read right through.*

The recognised corpus of Michelangelo drawings is bigger than it once was. Scholars are now more willing to allow that Michelangelo – ‘divine’ in his lifetime – was as uneven as a broader view of what is authentic suggests, and that he destroyed fewer preliminary studies than was previously thought. But even if every drawing now attributed to him is genuine, there is reason to believe that he would have been unhappy for us to see everything that is on show, just as he would have found it hard to imagine that an interest in this evidence of the process of creation might be almost as significant to later generations as the grandeur of the final results which it explicates.

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