By Michele Leight
For most artists drawing is
where their spontaneous thoughts and ideas take form, and it is
often their freshness that makes them so alluring. Raphael, Van
Gogh and Victor Hugo did not have much in common stylistically,
but they all made drawings. While it is unlikely that their paintings
would hang next to each other in an exhibition, it is revealing
to see their drawings displayed together in "Raphael to Renoir,"
an important show featuring 120 outstanding drawings from the
private collection of Jean Bonna of Geneva, Switzerland, at The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, on view from January 21-April 26,
Beginning with an exquisite,
tiny brush and wash with white gouache on blue paper, "Kneeling
Figure in Prayer," by Vittore Carpaccio, circa 1515, and
ending with a magnificently smokey conte crayon and stumping by
Georges Seurat, dated 1882-85, the drawings at "Raphael to
Renoir" were selected from 500 master drawings by Italian,
Northern European, French and British artists in the collection,
spanning 500 years of the history of art. It is always fascinating
to think about the works that were not chosen, given the quality
of the ones on display here.
The Bonna Collection is considered
among the finest in the world and the show was organized by George
R. Goldner, Drew Heinz Chairman of the Metropolitan Museum's Drawings
and Prints Department, and Carmen C. Bambach, Curator, who is
shown with Raphael's "Study of Soldiers from the Conversion
of Saul" at the top of the review. Drawings like this open
up worlds within worlds, because they are closest to the artist's
imagination, and the show made me crave more.
Drawings give us many clues
about artists. They are in the process of becoming art works,
whereas a painting is all figured out, the vision realized. It
could be argued however that the exquisite "Head of a Young
Woman in Frontal View" by Federico Barocci, (1535-1612),
illustrated here, is a fully realized work of art, even though
it is a drawing. She has a da Vinci other-worldliness, and she
clearly inspired the artist.The wall text of this exhibition indicates
that besides Mr. Bonna's deeply personal reaction to drawings,
a preoccupation with the artist's initial ideas was among the
guiding principles of the collection which was assembled over
20 years. That is not a long time to have amassed a collection
of this caliber.
When artists do not have to
commit to a highly polished "composition" during the
sketching stage this offers us a sneak peek at their working methods.
To be able to do this with sketches by artists of the caliber
of Andrea del Sarto, Parmigianino (see The City Review article on the Correggio
and Parmigianino exhibition),
Canaletto, Claude Lorrain, Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, Chardin,
Goya. Ingres, Delacroix, Gericault, Manet, Whistler, Degas, Cezanne,
Renoir, Redon, Gauguin and Van Gogh, among others, is a rare privelige.
Displayed unpretentiously beside these blockbuster artists are
works by a few that are virtually unknown, with no loss in quality,
like the pensive, "Head of a Young Woman with a Coral Necklace"
by Jacopo Vignali, (1592-1664). This sensitive drawing possesses
a directness reminiscent of Rembrandt. The young woman is not
quite beautiful, but she is compelling. How did these lesser known
artists survive? Did they have modest patrons who helped them
keep body and soul together, so they could spend their lives drawing
and painting, or did they work two or three jobs to practice their
art? There were no scholarships and fellowships in those days.
Drawings bring us so much closer to artists. They make us wonder
about their daily lives.
Two exquisite portraits by
Chardin rendered with supreme confidence and technical virtuosity
in pastels in 1777 could be mistaken for paintings. However, their
inclusion in an exhibition of drawings is a reminder that pastels
are not quite paintings even if they look like them. Odilon Redon's
poetic pastel "Sailing Boat with Two Passengers (La Barque)"
was created in 1900 on heavily textured woven paper.
The freshness of chalk, pastel,
crayon, pen and ink in the hands of some of the world's greatest
artists are so stunning they blur the boundaries of the various
disciplines, even when they span almost 400 years of artistic
schools and sensibilities from the Renaissance to the late 19th
century. Renoir's stunning "Nude Bathers with a Crab,"
illustrated below, gives every indication of the sensuous painting
it would become, but this was not so of all the artists whose
drawings are on view at this show.
The earliest drawings demonstrate
raw talent and rigorous classical training (some artists clearly
had both talent and training) and those less naturally gifted
like Van Gogh (1853-1890), whose "Houses in a Landscape"
displays none of the virtuoso draughtsmanship of Raphael, Parmigianino
or Ingres, a deficiency that eventually led him to invent his
unique signature style. This drawing was executed in 1890, the
year he committed suicide.
While Van Gogh's clumisness
with crayon and pencil is evident in many of his drawings, this
inconsistency did not transfer to his confident works in pen and
ink, or his absolute genius when he moved to pigment and canvas.
Van Gogh's inability to draw like the artists he so admired -
which is obvious when his drawings are exhibited beside Degas
bathers, or the portraits by Ingres and Gauguin illustrated here
- only magnifies what he had to overcome because it did not come
naturally or easily to him.
Ultimately, Van Gogh's struggles
with drawing compelled him to invent a unique style of painting
that holds its own today with the greatest artistic geniuses.
But he recognized his flaw at the outset when he began drawing.
Unlike many of the great virtuoso draughtsmen at this show, Van
Gogh was essentially self-taught. He admired Gauguin's virtuosity,
the ease with which he could draw and realize his compositions
with confidence, while Van Gogh lagged behind, frustrated, agonizing
at every turn. Perhaps it is his inconsistencies, his flaws, that
make him one of the most widely reproduced and beloved artists
of all time. It is Van Gogh's paintings - not Gauguin's - that
are covered with glass in the most famous art museums today, because
of the astronomical prices that are paid for them. This is ironic
when none of his paintings sold during his lifetime. He never
knew recognition, approval or fame.
Gauguin and Van Gogh were friends
and worked closely together, but theirs was a tenuous, often strained
relationship, on one occassion resulting in the infamous slicing
off of part of Van Gogh's ear, which he sent to Gauguin wrapped
in paper. It was frustrating for Van Gogh to be around such raw
talent in art making and in love making - Gauguin was equally
adept at both - because neither came easily to him.
Perhaps it is because the Renaissance
masters stressed the importance of drawing so emphatically that
their pupils were able to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
and what today seem like acres of walls and ceilings in hundreds
of Italy's churches and palaces with stunning murals. These flawless
compositions were drawn to scale then painted. The least
well known among them show a level of professionalism that would
be hard to achieve today, even with our technology and sophisticated
tools.The greatest Renaissance murals, like Michelangelo's Sistine
Chapel, were the work of genius. Michelangelo was three feet away
from his mural the entire time he painted it, memorizing and drawing
everything to scale like a human computer. He never saw the entire
composition untill it was completed when the scaffold was removed.
The success of the ceiling relied on the scale drawing beneath.
Many of the Renaissance artists whose work is on view at this
show would have been trained to work "blind" as Michelangelo
did - just not as brilliantly - but many came close.
When the "canvas"
is a dome in a chapel or the soaring ceiling of a ballroom in
a ducal palace, it cannot be approached spontaneously! All Renaissance
artists, not just the level of Raphael and Parmigianino, were
well versed in painting on large scale murals because those were
the commissions they most coveted and they were rigorously trained
to realize them. The lesser known or talented artists assisted
the great masters, which was the best training of all. "School
of" and "studio or workshop of" are common attributions
in Renaissance art, when it required teams of artists, sculptors,
artisans and assistants to realize a project like a mural. The
drawing or sketch was the first rung of the ladder, rolled out
and carefully considered before anyone made a move.
Raphael's "Study of Soldiers
in the Conversion of Saul" (circa 1615-16), illustrated at
the top of this review, is best appreciated in person. This drawing
is a reminder of the rigorous steps that lay between a preliminary
sketch and the final elaborate composition in most Renaissance
art, which often told epic (usually biblical) tales in a series
of "cartoons," respecting every fold, crease and shadow
magnified on a gargantuan scale in the spectacular grand finale.
The initial humble sketches and drawings like the ones on view
at this show often morphed into a magnificent mural in a church,
cathedral or ducal palace. As many of these drawings demonstrate,
endless refining could rarely improve upon that first, magical
sketch, when the artist was most inspired. The great masters of
the Renaissance had a profound and lasting effect upon future
generations of artists, including Watteau and Boucher whose drawings
are illustrated here, because they set the bar as high as it was
possible to go. "Study of Soldiers in the Conversion of Saul"
by Raphael was originally from the collection of The Dukes of
Devonshire at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, England.
The total command of the medium
in the hands - or fingers - of artists of this stature is softened
by the informality and spontaneity drawing offered them, including
the option to render several views of a given subject within a
single image or frame - like layering in digital film today, or
sequencing in film. It was from these preliminary sketches that
the final pose or "head shot" for the masterwork would
be selected. The juxtaposition of some of the artists works at
the show like Watteau (1684-1721) and Boucher (1703-1770) are
intentional, and show how one generation of artists often influenced
the next. Perhaps even more fascinating is how much "copying"
from the great masters that preceeded them - or "drawing
from the antique" - was encouraged.
"Copying" was a critical
part of classical art training that often resulted in the artist
retaining something of their teacher or master's "style,"
like Watteau's "Three Studies of Female Heads," and
Boucher's "Bust of a Young Woman in a Shift with Her Hair
Tied Up, Seen from Behind," illustrated above and below.
The greatest artists rivaled or surpassed their masters or teachers,
like shoots from a spring blossom. Leonardo da Vinci far surpassed
his teacher Ghirlandao, who was a superb artist, but not
a genius. Many pupils surpassed their teachers during the Renaissance,
when the bar was set extremely high. A great teacher can be the
match that lights the flame of inspiration.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was
a modern classicist, which sounds like a contradiction, but it
is not. His rigorous attention to detail and emphasis on drawing
is evident in all his paintings. Cezanne is often called the father
of modern art, although like most of the artists in this show,
his art was far too contemporary and cutting edge for public appreciation
or understanding in his lifetime. Cubism changed the course of
art history, taking it in an exciting new direction. This beautiful
watercolor by the solitary, taciturm genius displays the bare
bones of Cubism, demonstrating how Cezanne broke up a surface
into lines, planes and mass.
bears a striking resemblance to a sketch illustrated below by
the great romantic artist Eugene Delacroix' (1798-1863) whom he
greatly admired, which is documented in his correspondence and
diary. Cézanne had no kind words for Ingres or David, however,
even though they were "haute" classicists. He had strong
romantic inclinations in his youth, which emerged once again in
his later, more emotional paintings. Although Cezanne is most
closely associated with the poet Emile Zola, he had a lifelong
affinity for the romantic literature and poetry of Baudelaire
and Flaubert, but the romantic influence of Delacroix was most
profound. Cézanne owned three paintings, six prints and
two original lithographs by Delacroix, and he made many copies
from the artists paintings, notably "The Apotheosis of Delacroix,"
a title taken from his diary, shown the artist working on it in
his studio in a famous photograph dated 1894.
George Goldner, Chairman of
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Drawings and Prints Department
enthusiastically explained that the winsome watercolor of "A
Wild Boar Piglet" was painted by Hans Hoffman in 1578, one
of four beautiful "nature" drawings at the show influenced
by Albrecht Durer, that supreme master of realism and all things
Durer's myopic attention to
detail was rescued from becoming mere illustration by a startling
sense of immediacy and freshness, as if the animal or plant might
at any moment sprout or leap from the surface, like this adorable
little boar. A master artist of the past, Durer inspired a stylistic
revival among a younger generation of artists like Hoffman.
It is somehow fitting that
like an artistic daisy chain the legacy of the great artists of
the past lives on in the work of younger generations of artists
who admired them.