Thursday, 8 July 2010

You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere

I love looking at paintings - pre-twentieth century paintings, that is (I can't be doing with anything after Corot, as my father so wisely used to say). Yet, when I look at them, although I am filled with admiration, it is always admiration from a distance. That distance is not just the physical one, dictated by the bossy men and women who chastise you in museums (and how come the Louvre staff are so much less officious than the National Gallery staff in London [I suppose that's a stupid question: the Louvre staff aren't British]); it is also created by my lack of knowledge about how the pictures were produced. The techniques used to build up the layers of pigment on a Holbein canvas are utterly outside my experience (the closest I've got would be finger painting at the Chelsea Froebel School in 1961 or 2). As a result, when I stand in front of a Titian or a Caravaggio, my appreciation is tempered by a sense of inadequacy. 'How did they make these things?' I wonder. Constructing a computer is only slightly more mysterious than spreading paint about like Velasquez - at least for me.

Drawing though is another matter - at least in theory. I couldn't actually ever produce anything worth looking at, but at least I understand the basic process. That is one reason I found the exhibition of Renaissance drawings at the British Museum so particularly enthralling. There is an immediacy about a drawing - a sense that it gives you some kind of almost direct link to the artist who made it hundreds of years ago. There it is, a piece of paper; there he was with a pencil in his hand. He made these marks, and now you are looking at them. There is nothing between those straightforward gestures that made lines appear on paper - no stretching of canvas, no complex mixing of oil and colour, no lacquers, no varnishes - and you, the observer. You too have picked up a pencil and drawn images of some sort on paper. You have shared the activity of the masters whose works appear in the show.

The exhibition itself is enormous - and, the day I went, pretty crowded. It is too much to take in everything in one visit. Instead, I picked out a few pictures to look at in detail. I started with King David by Fra Angelico, which showed the king seated, playing a lyre. All the detail of the drawing is concentrated around the figure's shoulders and head; the lower half of the picture is conveyed with just a few clean incisive accurate lines. Set down in brown ink on vellum in 1430, the image has survived almost six centuries, arriving before us as sharp and fresh as the day it was made.

Next I looked at Three Men, drawn in 1433 by Pisanello - 'they look like birds' one of the other visitors said, and they do, in their stockings and ballooning hot pants, topped by little capes complete with fur collars captured with Durer like attention to detail - and his horribly meticulous studies of hanged men. I saw drawings by Lorenzo Lippi, which reminded me a lot of Edward Ardizzone, and works by Raphael, including some studies of the Virgin and Child which were, although more brilliant than anything I could ever have managed, really just quick doodles he made to resolve an anatomical puzzle.

Sadly though, as so often with exhibitions, when I read the captions I found myself coming up against the "art speak" that curators do so love to spout. For instance, attached to a drawing from 1502-03 by Raphael called Head of a Woman, was the following statement:

"Already apparent is his gift for geometrical abstraction, seen in the lucid harmony created through the rhythmical play of curved forms."

The drawing showed an oval face framed by an oval of hair and wimple. The sure simplicity of line, the way Raphael could just pick up a pen and draw without hesitation, is what struck me as wonderful about the picture. "Lucid harmony", "rhythmical play" and "gift for geometrical abstraction" are all phrases from which I can extract no more meaning than from a blast of Finnish.

God knows what was written about the pictures I loved best in the exhibition - Leonardo's sketches of the infant Jesus playing with a cat. Drawn in pen and brown ink over leadpoint, somewhere between 1475 and 1481, these sketches were never worked up into a painting. What is appealing about them (apart, of course, from their "lucid harmony") is the sense you have that they could have been done yesterday, that both the child and the cat exist somewhere out there in today's world, just as much as in Leonardo's. The expression of guileless joy on the child's face as he squeezes the squirming cat to his chest and the eager clumsiness Leonardo captures as the child pats the unwilling creature are vivid and immediately recognisable. They aren't the most beautiful drawings in the exhibition but, if I were both rich and unscrupulous, it would be those little scribbles that I'd hire a robber to pinch.

(And, just by way of a postscript, before sticking the boot too heavily into BP, it is worth noting that they sponsored the exhibition - once they're gone, what in the art world will replace their rivers of gold?)


  1. I so love Caravaggio and Velasquez. Photographs never do the real thing justice do they? I remember when I saw Bernini's Daphne and Apollo in Rome - it actually made me cry. I'd never had a reaction to an artwork like that before...

  2. As I started reading this I thought to myself "I hope she saw the Leonardo drawings with the child squeezing the cat"! I find his paintings quite unapproachable as they are so highly finished - in fact, I think he was criticised by a contemporary for not being able to leave his paintings alone. He would go back to them time and again in an attempt to perfect them. The results are, to my eye at least, nothing like as satisfying as these drawings. They give you a real sense of the artist's hand and mind at work. I actually find them pulse-quickeningly exciting. I

  3. blimey, sophie got so excited there she just walked off mid-sentence.

  4. really hungry now and need to get some lunch.

  5. Nurse - there is a fantastic Caravaggio in the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna. It's Christ having the crown of thorns put on - psychologically brilliant and very beautiful and strange
    Sophie - 'They give you a real sense of the artist's hand and mind at work': yes, yes, that's exactly what I was groping towards trying to say.

  6. oh I hope to see that one day