Jim Cowan reports on an exhibition that’s up his street.
‘For OCA drawing and watercolour students, finding an exhibition that shows examples of work can often be a difficult undertaking. Galleries that show paintings are more prone to show oil or acrylics, and it is especially hard to find a major gallery that exhibits watercolours and drawings. Is this because curators think watercolour is not a serious medium for contemporary artists to explore? As for drawings, well nobody does drawing anymore do they? You don’t have to be able to draw to create art and anyway it’s such a minor art form, you hear them say.
The Courtauld Gallery is continuing its run of excellent shows by staging ‘Mantegna to Matisse’, an exhibition that celebrates the art of drawing across 500 years. The subject matter is either secular or religious, finished work or sketches, dry media or watercolour. There are 60 works on display from the Courtauld Institute’s collection and all the major artists in the period are represented. What you find is that artists tend to use drawing media in the preparatory process of a composition and these are often relegated to sketchbooks or discarded and not shown in an exhibition situation. Who would possibly be interested in the artist’s initial thoughts or their skill with a pencil or pastel? In the past collectors kept drawings of this sort in albums and these were often marked with the owner’s personal stamp.
The importance of drawing is that it gives insight into the creativity and thought processes of the artist. A rapid sketch by Leonardo of two figures, which was done for his own benefit, is placed next to Michelangelo’s ‘Il Sogno’ (The Dream) of 1533 that was produced as a presentation drawing for a young Roman nobleman. Nearby, Pontormo’s ‘Seated Youth’ of 1520 is a studio drawing that stylistically seems modern, so confident is the fluent and economic technique. Equally telling is the quill pen and brown ink Rembrandt drawing of two men talking (1641) that hangs next to the Van Gogh drawing of ‘A Tile Factory’ (1888) also in brown ink, but this time done with reed pens. In both you can see the same economy of line and shorthand notation that captures the scene.
There is no overriding theme to this exhibition. It is instead a collection of well-known names from the Courtauld’s collection. Inevitably some drawings will stand out more than others depending on the viewer’s interests and tastes. An example might be the great Flemish artist Peter Paul Ruben’s portrait of his second wife Helena Fourmet (1630-31). Confidently done in black, red and white chalk retouched with pen and ink, it is not a completely finished drawing. The face and hand have received more care and attention in comparison to other parts of the drawing, and the stylistic combination is all the more telling in the personal nature of the task. Another striking drawing, this time in black Conte crayon, is George Seurat’s ‘Female Nude’ (1878) where the intensely drawn lines on rough paper heighten the contrast of the white figure against the dark background.
For humour you can’t beat Honore Daumier, who’s ‘Hypochondriac’ (1850) is a caricature that interprets the scene from ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’ by Moliere. The patient, lying in bed, eyes with alarm the oversized clyster eagerly held by the doctor’s assistant. An enema seems to be the required treatment for this particular malaise!
Drawn in pen, ink and wash it hangs next to an example of what Art Historians like to call a ‘watercolour drawing’ by the Englishman Francis Towne. The term implies that the drawing has been heightened with watercolour and it was not until Girtin and Turner come along that watercolour became elevated in status as a major medium. Cezanne’s use of watercolour is very distinctive, and his ‘Apple, Bottle and Chair Back’ of 1902 stands out in its use of colour, with reds, blue and greens predominating. There is a building up of colour and wash over a pencil drawing that reveals the potential freshness and spontaneity of the medium.
The show ends with a drawing of an odalisque by Matisse only because of the need for an attractive title –Mantegna to Matisse, but it so easily could have been Pontormo to Picasso or any other appropriate alliteration. Good as this exhibition is, it somehow leaves you wanting more. Did the art of drawing and watercolour end there or does the Courtauld, which relies on donations for its collection, have nothing that takes us into the 20th Century and beyond?
This is an exciting exhibition and not to be missed. It shows the initial ideas of great artists, mostly not intended for exhibition and as such is very revealing. If art is anything it is a continuing tradition, and the art of drawing its most basic requirement. To neglect this fundamental means of expression will leave us all the poorer.’