"Unknown Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Buddist Painting” at the Asia Society Museum in New York City presents a selection of Tibetan paintings collected during the expeditions of Giuseppe Tucci during his expeditions to Tibet along with some of the photographs that were taken during the expedition. The paintings in the exhibit are from the Museum of Civilisation-Museum of Oriental Art "Giuseppe Tucci," in Rome and are being shown for the first time in the United States.
Giuseppe Tucci was a writer, scholar and explorer who made eight expeditions to Tibet during the period 1926 to 1948. Up to that time, Tibet was a remote mystery and Tibetan culture largely unknown outside of Tibet. Tucci traveled some 5,000 miles on foot and on horseback across the Tibetan plateau, In addition to meeting people and seeing places, he obtained permission to collect examples of Tibetan culture for study outside the country.
In addition, Tucci brought along photographers to document the expeditions. Their mission included photographing monuments, cultural artifacts, people and their occupations. In other words, they made a systematic effort to document this ancient culture before it vanished.
The exhibition presents copies of some of the 14,000 photographs that were taken. Done in black and white, with strong contrast, the images are artistic in themselves. They reveal a treeless, stark world populated by people who are both rugged and spiritual.
The core of the exhibition, however, is the paintings. Done on fabric, the majority of these paintings are religious paintings designed to be an aid in meditation and ritual. Most relate to Buddhism but some relate to earlier religions.
Deemed to be in too poor condition to be used in religious practice, Tucci acquired paintings by purchase and by gift. A number of the paintings were discovered in a cave by one of his photographers. The ones on exhibit have now been restored.
The paintings are full of religious symbols and meaning. Indeed, even the 17th century Arhat paintings, which look at first glance like a series of portraits, have symbolic meaning. The Arhats were disciples of the Shakyamuni Buddha. In each of the paintings, there is a dominant central figure. Around him are various figures and animals, each of which relates to some aspect of the central figure's life. Furthermore, the paintings relate to each other as they were to be hung in a certain order in the temple.
Leaving aside their religious meaning, the paintings work as art. The figures are done delicately with relatively few lines, avoiding unnecesary detail. Beyond the figures are serene landscapes Flat and two dimensional, the images also have an abstract appeal. The restored colors are bright and appealing.
“American Painters in Italy: From Copley to Sargent” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an intimate exhibition of works from 18 American artists illustrating the influence of Italy on their art. Drawn from the museum's collection, it includes drawings and sketches as well as a number of watercolor paintings.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people interested in pursuing a career in art were encouraged to travel to Italy to study that country's long artistic history and culture. Of course, only a few had the means to make the arduous trip across the Atlantic from America. Still, beginning with Benjamin West in 1760, a number of American artists who would later achieve lasting fame made the journey.
For example, Thomas Cole traveled to Italy in 1825 during a sojourn that took him to England and several European capitals. In Italy, he enrolled in art classes in Florence and made copies of works by Italian Renaissance masters. He also ventured out and made sketches of the Italian landscape. When he returned to the United States, he incorporated what he had learned in his landscapes. Thus, Cole's time in Italy can be said to have influenced the Hudson River School and American landscape painting.
The exhibition contains a number of works done as part of such educational journeys. For example, there is a page of drawings by Thomas Sully of works by Michelangelo. There is also a watercolor copy by Julian Alden Weir of a painting by Botticelli.
Italy's influence on American artists is shown in other ways. For example, J. Carroll Beckwith's chalk drawing called “The Veronese Print.” is a portrait of a Victorian era woman.. The reference to the Italian Renaissance master Paolo Veronese in the picture's title is to a print on the wall behind the sitter.
Of course, American artists traveled to Italy for purposes other than studying. In 1879, James McNeil Whistler traveled to Venice to do a series of etchings for the Fine Art Society in London. While he was there, he did nearly 100 pastel drawings of the city. His “Note in Pink and Brown” is an intriguing drawing of a scene from one of Venice's canals. Whistler omits unnecessary detail to produce a vague, dream-like atmosphere.
The highlight of the exhibition is a series of watercolors by John Singer Sargent. Born in Florence, Italy to expatriate American parents, Sargent traveled often to Italy. Most of these watercolors are landscapes of Venice or studies of architectural features. His watercolors are freer than the commissioned portraits for which he is best known. Furthermore, the colors are more vivid in the watercolors, more like those of his friend Claude Monet.
“Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a large exhibition that places in context much of the art created in France from the French Revolution to World War I. It explains why so much attention was paid by artists such as the Impressionists to the out doors as a subject.
Extending from the late 18th century through the 19th century a passion developed in France for parks and gardens. Several factors came together to fuel this passion.
First, as a result of the French Revolution, the parks and hunting reserves that had heretofore been open only to royalty and the aristocracy, became open to everyone. This access helped to open the eyes of the public to the beauties of nature.
Second, the Industrial Revolution also changed the character of society. The middle class grew and people had more leisure time. They wanted green spaces, both public parks and private gardens, where they could escape from the stresses and pollution that were the less attractive side effects of industrialization. Accordingly, in the grand re-design of Paris that took place in the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann included tree-lined boulevards and some 30 parks and squares. Other cities and towns throughout France followed suit.
Third, it was also a period of exploration and travel. Exotic plants were being brought back to France, stirring the public imagination. The Empress Josephine, first wife of Napoleon, and a celebrity in her day, spurred public interest in such plants by making her greenhouse at Malmaison a horticulture hub for exotic species.
Artists were not immune from these forces. The natural world, depicted in landscapes and in still lifes, had long been a subject for art. However, a new enthusiaum developed. The painters of the Barbizon School took inspiration from the former royal hunting grounds at Fontainebleau. Later, the Impressionists, whose aims included depicting scenes of modern life, reflected public's passion for parks, gardens and the natural world in their works.
While this exhibition includes earlier works, the Impressionists and the artists that they influenced dominate the exhibition. For example, in the gallery “Parks for the Public,” we see works by Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau and others of former royal hunting reserves. However, you also have masterpieces by Calude Monet and Camille Pissaro of city parks in Paris. There is also a wonderful watercolor by Berthe Morrisot “A Woman Seated at a Bench on the Avenue du Bois” as well as a study by Pointillist George Seurat for “"A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."
In the gallery “Private Gardens,” the works reflect the fact that people wanted to have their own green spaces where they could cultivate plants and escape from the outside world. Many artists were also amateur gardeners during this period. Of course, the dominant figure here is Claude Monet who was painting garden scenes long before he created his famous garden at Giverney. However, lesser known watercolors of garden scenes by Renoir and by Cezanne should not be overlooked.
With regard to portraiture, we see that the artists blurred the distinction between portraits and genre painting. They are both depictions of individuals and scenes of everyday life. As a result, the identity of the sitter is no longer paramount if important at all to the success of the work. Furthermore, nature is an equal partner in these scenes, not just a background.
To illustrate, Edouard Manet's “The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil” is a portrait of Monet and his family. The figures are arranged in a relaxed manner rather than in traditional portrait poses. Thus, it is also a scene of everyday life. Moreover, it would be just as successful if the figures were an unidentified family because it is a captivating garden scene.
The passion for nature also brought about a revival of interest in floral still life painting. The exhibition presents examples by Manet, Monet, Cassat, Degas, and Matisse to name a few. But Vincent Van Goghs paintings of sunflowers and irises attract the most viewers.
Given the popularity of the Impressionists and their broader circle, one would expect any exhibit in which they are prominent to be successful. However, the Met has done a good job here of supporting the theme of the exhibition. In addition to the paintings, there are drawings, prints contemporary photographs and objects relating to this theme. The signage is also good.
“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents some 200 works by Michelangelo and his contemporaries. It includes 133 of Michelangelo's drawing as well as three of his marble sculptures gathered from 48 museums and private collections. It is a monumental exhibit.
Although Michelangelo considered himself to be primarily a sculptor in marble, he was also a painter and an architect. In this exhibition, we see that the foundation of his art in all of these disciplines was drawing. But more than mere draftsmanship, his drawing reflected a quality of design. The exhibition uses the Italian word disego to capture this concept.
Very few of the works in this exhibition were meant for public display. Rather, they were preparatory drawings made in order to work out ideas that would be used in paintings or sculptures. Others served to illustrate ideas for buildings. Because they were made further back in the creative process, they reveal something of how Michelangelo developed his ideas.
To illustrate how some of the drawings led to finished works, the exhibit has a one quarter size reproduction of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel displayed ion the ceiling of one of the galleries. Visitors can look up from Michelangelo's drawing and see how that idea was used in the final masterpiece.
The exhibit also places the drawings in context. For example, the exhibit is open about Michelangelo's love of young men and explains that his “divine heads” were drawings that he did of those men and as presents for them. It also discusses his platonic relationship with the poet Vittoria Colonna and presents the drawings that he did when he came under her influence.
It also looks at his relationship with other artists. To illustrate, Raphael began to achieve success in Rome at a time when Michelangelo was living in Florence. In order to compete with Raphael, Michelangelo fed ideas to the painter Sebastiano.
Michelngelo's powerful marble bust of Brutus is presented along with a Roman statue that inspired Michelangelo and a bust of Julius Caesar made by a contemporary of Michelangelo. This allows us to see the debt that Michelangelo owed to the ancients as well as how his work broke with what was fashionable when Michelangelo created his Brutus.
Michelangelo is one of the best known artists of all time. Yet, this exhibit sheds light on his creative process and career that may not have been generally appreciated before.
The centerpiece of the Neue Galerie is the Klimt Gallery on the second floor. This room is home to ten or so works by Gustav Klimt. While there are many interesting works in the Neue Galerie, this is where you find the most visitors.
Undoubtedly, Klimt is the best known of the Austrian and German artists featured in this museum. But what makes his art successful?
Klimt was born in 1862 outside of Vienna. His father was an engraver often working with gold but Gustav grew up in poverty.
He received his artistic training at the State School of Arts and Crafts as did his brother Ernst. The teo brothers formed a partnership with fellow artists Franz Matsch and found their first success doing conventional history paintings.
Gustav was not satisfied with conventional art. Therefore, after Ernst's death, Gustav became a founding member of the Vienna Secession, a group who sought to break away from the rules of the art establishment of the day. Nonetheless, his unconventional style was appreciated by Vienna's growing middle class who commissioned him to do portraits.
On the surface, Klimt's private life might appear to have been conventional. All his life, he lived in an apartment with his mother and two sisters. After Ernst died, he became the guardian for his niece. He never married.
But when you look a little deeper, you find that surface appearances can be deceptive. When Gustav died in 1918, the court handling his estate received 14 petitions for child support. The court concluded that three of these were proven. Such claims were consistent with the widespread rumors that Gustav had had numerous affairs with his models as well as with some of the rich ladies whose portraits he had painted. In the studio, he dressed only in a loose robe and there were tales of models cavorting between posing for erotic drawings.
Thus, Klimt was both an artistic rebel and a very sensuous individual. These are also the hallmarks of Klimt's best works.
The superstar painting of the Klimt Gallery is “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” This painting was the subject of the popular film “The Woman In Gold” but that is not the only reason people stop and linger in front of it.
It is not a conventional portrait. Indeed, only the sitter's head, shoulders and hands are easily discernible. The golden gown that covers the rest of her body blends into the background. It is a two dimensional picture full of decorative designs and geometric patterns. Yet, the various elements of the picture come together to support the face, which dominates the sea of gold.
The face is not classically beautiful but it is attractive. Her eyes are soulful and her red lips sexual. It was believed at the time that Adele was one of the women with whom Gustav had an affair. His painting “Judith,” which Adele also posed for, certainly suggests that their relationship was more than platonic. Returning to the portrait, this face surrounded by sumptuous gold leaf makes the work very sensuous.
Also in the Klimt Gallery is “Adele Bloch-Bauer II,” a slightly later portrait of the same person. It does not have the gold work of the earlier portrait and thus is not as bold. The figure is more conservatively dressed in what was probably a daytime outfit and stands out more than in the predecessor painting. Still, it is an unconventional portrait, Once again it is two dimensional. Colorful rectangles decorated with Japanese-inspired designs make up the background.
The figure is not posed provocatively but rather she is straight as a pillar. Nonetheless, her sensuality comes through in her face through Klimt's handling of the eyes and the lips.
She is portrayed intriguingly but with a touch of innocence.
On the same wall is “The Dancer,” which is similar in dimensions and in composition to “Adele Bloch-Bauer II”. It is perhaps more colorful and more flesh is more exposed but it works for generally the same reasons.
Most of the other pictures in the Gallery are landscapes. They recall works done by the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists and would have been unconventional at the time they were painted. However,without the human figure there is little sensuality and therefore less interest.
“Max Ernst - Beyond Painting” at New York's Museum of Modern Art is a survey of the career of the Dada and surrealist artist including some 100 works from the Museum's collection. It is called “Beyond Painting” because of its focus on the different techniques that Ernst used in his works.
Ernst was born in 1891 outside of Cologne, Germany. By the time the First World War broke out in August 1914, he had already embarked on a career as an artist. Drafted into the German army, Ernst served on both the eastern and western fronts. The war had a traumatic effect on Ernst. Indeed, Ernst wrote that he died on the day the war broke out and was resurrected on the day of the armistice.
Returning to Germany, Ernst became interested in the Dada movement. The Dadaists believed that rational thought and bourgeois values had led to the war. Rejecting such thought, they were interested in exploring nonsense, irrationality and the inexplicable.
In the 1920s, the Dada movement blended into Surrealism. This movement sought to resolve dreams and reality into a super-reality.
It is not surprising that such movements found traction in the post-World War I era. Ernst's generation had just lived through a period where people had lived in mud trenches and at the sound of a whistle, stood up only to be mowed down in the thousands by machine guns and artillery as they tried to cross the lunar-like no man's land. In years of fighting, very little land changed hands. Meanwhile, people were living more or less normal lives a hundred miles from the front. The participants could very easily ask whether reality was rational.
Ernst explored these concepts first in Germany and then in France. When World War II began, Ernst experienced more absurdity. He was imprisoned by the French as an undesirable foreigner. Shortly after his friends persuaded the government to release him, the Germans occupied France. Ernst was again arrested, this time by the Gestapo for producing “degenerate art.”
Escaping to the United States, Ernst found some financial success and recognition. Nonetheless, he returned to France and continued to live there primarily from the the 1950s until his death in 1976.
Many of the Dadaists and Surrealists believed that traditional art embodied the bourgeois values that they rejected. This “anti-art” thinking extended to some extent to technique. Consequently, they looked for non-traditional technique to create art. This exhibition highlights some of the different techniques used by Ernst.
To illustrate, in The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses Ernst took a chart showing the metamorphosis of brewer's yeast cells, painted over portions of the chart with black paint and then drew in various objects. The result is an image that looks like an abstract circus performance.
In To the Rendezvous of Friends (The Friends Become Flowers, Snakes, and Frogs), Ernst made use of grattage. He built up layers of paint and then used hard-edged tools like spatulas and palette knives, to expose the underlying layers of paint and to create surface textures.
Ernst used decalcomania to produce the underlayers in Napoleon in the Wildreness. In this process, pigment is applied to a sheet of glass and then pressed onto the canvas. The squeezed pigment makes shapes on the canvas. Ernst then painted figures onto the canvas.
There is also a series of sheets in which Ernst used frattage (rubbings) to produce very realistic images. He then added various details to develop the images into something more surreal.
Ernst was also a sculptor and the exhibit has several works where Ernst took everyday objects and re-arranged them to create fantastic creatures.
Not abandoning traditional technique altogether, the exhibit includes several oil paintings. We see here that Ernst was a very good draftsman. But as in Woman, Old Man, and Flower, the scene has a hallucinatory quality, detailed yet full of the unexpected.
Certainly, the spotlight on technique in this exhibit is of interest to people who make art. However, it also provides a view into the creative process that should be of interest to all.
Rodin At The Met is a salute to the sculptor Auguste Rodin on the 100th anniversary of his death. It is an entirely fitting tribute as the then-young museum was a supporter of this artist during his lifetime to the extent of opening a gallery dedicated to his work in 1912. Rodin showed his appreciation by giving the Met additional works. This exhibit of some 50 works includes not only the works that the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired during the artist's lifetime but also works that it has collected subsequently.
Auguste Rodin was from a working class family that lived in Paris. He received his basic training in art at the Petit Ecole. However, he was refused admission to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the leading art academy in France. Although this forced Rodin onto a much more difficult road to success, he also avoided indoctrination into the lifeless Neo-classical style that was the trademark of that school.
Instead, Rodin slowly built his own style along with his reputation, first as an apprentice to other artists and then on his own. One turning point was his visit to Italy in 1876 during which he was very impressed by the sculptures of Michelangelo.
Even after he achieved fame, Rodin's style was not what people expected. There is story after story of how individuals and public authorities commissioned works only to be shocked by Rodin's final product. Those that were rejected are now recognized as some of the greatest works of 19th century art.
Rodin found fame in the United States after some of his works were displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Here again, some of his works were found so shocking that they were exhibited behind a curtain in an area that required special permission to enter. However, private collectors and museums were soon purchasing his works.
The Met has casts of several of Rodin's best known pieces including The Thinker, the companion sculptures Adam and Eve, the Age of Bronze and a study for the Monument to Balzac. Rodin modeled his sculptures in clay. Plaster casts were then made to preserve the sculpture. From these, bronze casts were made or marble carved often by studio assistants. This explains why the same work can appear in multiple museums.
There is a discernible difference between Rodin's bronzes and marbles. You can see the power of the sculptor's fingers working the underlying clay in the bronzes. The marbles tend to be less distinct, smoother and gauzier, almost dream-like.
In either case, you can clearly see Rodin's works were a clear break from the allegorical figures and gods and goddess so popular at the time. While some have titles that relate back to mythology or the bible, these works are of real people with real emotion.
A particularly fascinating part of this exhibit is Rodin's works on paper. In addition to sculpture, Rodin also did watercolors and drawings. Some of these were in preparation for sculptures but mostly they were another means of communication. It is said that Rodin would draw without removing the pen from the paper and without taking his eyes off the model. The results were images that border on abstraction and which are full of emotion.
Along with Rodin's works, the Met has hung examples of works done by his friends. One such friend was Claude Monet who also was leading a revolution in art in 19th century France. The two artists held a joint exhibition in 1889. These contemporary works help to place Rodin's works in context
Major exhibitions of drawings seem to be proliferating. In recent weeks, I have reviewed such exhibits at the Morgan Library and Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in London and now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This attention is well-deserved because as the Met correctly says “drawing is the foundation of all the visual arts.”
“Leonardo to Matisse” is a survey of European art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. It is done through works from such masters as Leonardo, Rembrandt, Duerer, Tiepolo, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Matisse. Moreover, because it is done utilizing works from the collection of one person, viewing the exhibit is a conversation with one connoisseur about art.
The works on exhibit are from the Met's Robert Lehman Collection. Robert Lehman graduated from Yale University in 1913 and by 1925 he was the head of the family-business, the investment banking house Lehman Brothers. He expanded that firm, bringing in outside partners, and made it into a financial powerhouse.
Mr. Lehman's interest in art began at an early age. His father and mother collected art and by the time Robert was a teenager, he had begun collecting on his own. Over the years, he accumulated a massive collection focusing on European Art from the 14th to the 20th century. By 1962, it had become so massive that he used the townhouse that he grew up on New York's West 54th Street solely as a repository for his collection.
It was not just a large collection but an important collection. Parts of it had been exhibited by the Louvre in Paris, the first private American collection to be so honored. Lehman took advice from experts in making his purchases but he also simply purchased what he liked.
Following Lehman's death in 1969, the Robert Lehman Foundation bestowed the collection of some, 2,600 works to the Metropolitan, where Mr. Lehman had been a trustee and chairman of the board. A new wing was constructed to exhibit the collection in order to follow his stipulation that the works be exhibited together as a collection.
There were more than 750 drawings in the collection. This exhibit presents some 60 works, which the Met describes as presenting “the full range of Robert Lehman's vast and distinguished drawings collection.”
We can see from this exhibit that Mr. Lehman was interested in a broad span of European art. Although the signage tells us that his first interest was in Italian Renaissance drawing, the works include sheets from other times, other parts of Europe and a wide range of styles. Indeed, the works extend up to Modernism and Neo-Impressionism. Some of the works were acquired directly from living artists.
Lehman also preferred finished drawings. This is not to say that all these works were finished in the sense that they were meant for public display. To the contrary, many were clearly done for the artist's own benefit in preparation for a painting or sculpture or to work out some problem of proportion or lighting etc. Indeed, Durer's self-portrait is on a sheet with a large study of a hand and Degas' dancer has other drawings on the reverse side. Rather, they are finished in the sense that the artist completed the concept. Few of the works are hasty sketches.
Most of the drawings are relatively small. Consequently, they require close viewing which in turn creates an intimacy with the work. A collector would not have purchased these to decorate a large room but rather to examine from time-to-time.
Very few of the drawings have color. Most are drawings done in black, brown or sometimes a combination of black, white and red chalk. Only one, a delightful tiny watercolor by Renoir, makes use of vibrant color.
The exhibit is on the lower floor of the Robert Lehman Wing. Many of the paintings that Lehman collected are on display on the upper floor. While the drawings are excellent, they are overshadowed by the paintings, which include masterpieces by Ingres, Goya and Raeburn and the Impressionist masters Monet, Pissaro and Renoir.
Beyond Caravaggio was an exhibition designed to highlight the influence of Caravaggio on European Art. The exhibit was a collaboration of the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Ireland and the Scottish National Gallery. I saw the exhibit in Edinburgh.
Michaelangelo Mersi was born in Milan in 1571. To escape the plague, his family moved to the town of Caravaggio, which gave the artist the name which he is known by today.
After studying art in Milan, Caravaggio moved to Rome where he established a reputation painting everyday subject matter. This drew the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and numerous commissions from the church followed. Indeed, the majority of Caravaggio's works have a religious theme.
Caravaggio came on the scene at a time when the Catholic Church was seeking to counter the Protestant Reformation. His work was quite different than earlier religious painting. It was dramatic and realistic and thus appealed to the masses. Conequently, it found favor and he became quite famous.
This artist was not a pleasant person. He was quarrelsome and became involved in numerous brawls. He consorted with prostitutes and it has been suggested that he was also a pimp. In 1606, he had to flee Rome because he murdered a man over a game of tennis.
He fled to Naples where he once again established himself as an artist. But then he had to flee again after a quarrel.
Caravaggio went to Malta where he was made a knight of Malta. However, after injuring one of the senior knights in a fight, he was expelled from the order for being “rotten.”
He went to Sicily where he again found artistic success. But enemies forced him to leave and return to Naples.
Seeking a Papal pardon, Caravaggio set out for Rome but died en route in 1610. The cause of death is unclear. He may have died from a fever or been poisoned by the lead contained in the paint he used. He also could have been murdered by one of his many enemies.
During his lifetime, Caravaggio was one of the most famous painters in Europe. His work was quite influential in the development of Baroque art. However, for a long time his work fell out of favor only to be revived in the 20th century. Today, he is once again very popular.
Several factors seem to support his modern popularity.
First, there is his trademark dramtic use of light. Hs makes extensive use of chiaroscuro, making stark contrasts between deep shadows and brilliant highlights. This gives his work an almost theatrical appeal.
Second, Caravaggio's works are highly realistic foreshadowing the hyper-realism which has become so popular today.
Third, the figures in Caravaggio's works are typically common people, not idealized figures. As a result, it is easier for audiences to identify with the scenes depicted by Caravaggio.
Fourth, the psychological realism of the paintings is appealing. The thoughts and emotions of the characters are clear.
Lastly, the scenes depicted by Caravaggio are often not very pleasant, involving torture, death or other stressful situations. Like horror films and Brutalist architecture, such negativity seems to speak to 20th and early 21st century audiences.
While the exhibit is about Caravaggio's influence on art, it is dominated by four major works by Caravaggio himself. We see in the other works that later artists adapted parts of Caravaggio's lighting style and/or his psychological realism but none of these works has the same impact as the works by the master.
Drawn to Greatness, Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection is the largest collection of drawings yet to be exhibited at the Morgan Library and Museum and includes some 150 works. However, beyond the quantity of works, this exhibit is important because of the quality of the works. The artists represented in the exhibit are a Who's Who of western art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Consequently, works of beauty and excellence unfold as you walk through the galleries.
The exhibit is drawn from the Thaw Collection, a gift of some 400 sheets by Eugene and Clare Thaw. It was amassed over the last 50 years by Mr. Thaw, an art dealer and collector. Interestingly, Mr. Thaw began his career handling the works of contemporary artists only later expanding into Old Masters. Mrs. Thaw encouraged her husband to keep some of the drawings that he was particularly enthusiastic about and so the collection was born.
Works from the Renaissance are the earliest works in the exhibit. As the signage at the exhibit tells us, this was when artistic drawing changed from mechanically recording an image to intellectually creating an image. The exhibit then proceeds chronologically through the centuries, revealing the many ways artists used drawing to create images.
The term drawing is used here in its broadest sense. It does not just encompass black and white images done with graphite or charcoal. Rather, the exhibit shows that there are many forms of drawing often involving color. These include pastels, watercolor, inks, chalks, and even oil paint to name a few mediums.
Indeed, I was struck by how artists in the 18th century would use several different mediums in their works. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, this multi-medium practice became lost so that today on social media an artist can be accused of “cheating” if a work contains say both gouache and watercolor.
The works here include finished pieces as well as works done in preparation for a painting or mural. However, because the drawings were often for the artist's personal use they are sometimes more revealing than works produced for sale as they are not as tempered by the need to please the tastes of the market. Turner's “The Pass of St. Goddard,” for example, is a swirling mass of colors that is closer to abstraction than realism.
Still, the drawings bear the hallmarks of the style which is associated with each artist. To illustrate, an Ingres' drawing looks like an Ingres portrait. You do not need to look at the signage to tell if a drawing was done by Picasso. As a result, the exhibit is a condensed survey of the major ideas in European art.
I found myself spending the most time with the late 19th century French masters. Degas is known for his pastels and so it was not surprising to find several of them on exhibit. But there was also a rare black and white drawing by Monet, the master of color. There are also delightful watercolors by Renoir and Morisot. The innovative works by Cezanne take watercolor in a different direction.
In addition to being an important exhibition for art lovers, I would also recommend this exhibit to those who make art. It is perhaps easier to push back the curtain and analyze how a work was done with a drawing as opposed to a finished painting.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.