By Bobbie Leigh
What makes a drawing a “master drawing?” How do you define the nature of mastery? One answer is to visit Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, a collection of 58 drawing from The Courtauld Gallery,London. Each one, whether a study for a painting, a quickly rendered sketch, or a form of note-taking to record some great visual experience, displays mastery of the subject as well as a range of materials –pencils, chalks, pen-and-ink, crayon, and a rare watercolor such as Paul Cezanne’s Apples, Bottle and Chairback.
No one answer will adequately explain what constitutes a master drawing, but as Vasari wrote it is a “certain conception and judgment,” a visible expression of inner thoughts translated into something concrete with pen and chalk on paper. If you only see one master work in this show such as Andrea Mantegna’s study for Christ at the Column, a mid-1460s pen and brown ink drawing, a visit to the Frick would still be worthwhile. Here we have a heroic, idealized depiction of Christ, whose strong, muscular body contrasts with his downturned head and facial agony. Mantegna (1431-1506) was an ardent student of Greek and Roman sculpture and departing from the usual biblical account, he endows the Savior with a body worthy of a Greek God, while his head is bent and his facial expression, tormented and anguished.
Among the many standouts among such great masters as da Vinci, Durer, Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau, van Gogh, Picasso and many others, , a Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) study for his painting La Grande Odalisque is especially riveting. Right out of the Thousand and One Nights, this ethereal nude odalisque ( the Turkish word for a harem slave) is hardly classical. Instead, her body is lithe, elongated, and barely there. She has no physical reality, just an immense sensual presence. Critics of the time attacked her for having “neither bones, nor muscles, nor life.” Yet there is more life in those dancer’s legs and immensely long arms than in more traditional Romantic era French nudes.
Totally fresh, modern, and spontaneous, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s (1864-1901) In Bed depicts a woman, probably a prostitute, peering at the painter with sleepy eyes. She seems reluctant to get out of bed. Her feet are enormous with soles peering out from under the crumpled sheets. According to the catalog the “thrust of his lines, confident and quickly done, convey a sense of vigor and excitement” in spite of the sleepy scene. Toulouse- Lautrec used two different mediums—a soft black chalk and a harder pencil line which emphasizes the woman’s face and hair. The hint that she has been exploited is simply not part of the drawing as in some of the artist’s other work.
The techniques on view here vary from preliminary sketches to designs for finished art works, but what unites the various Italian, Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish works is an extraordinarily high level of draftsmanship. Who can match Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (c 1525-1569) detailed drawings of peasant life. On view at the Frick is Kermis [church festival] at Hoboken, an exuberant drawing, a design for an engraving, showing revelers at a festival in the Flemish village of Hoboken.
Ruben’s (1577-1640) drawing, Helena Fourment, his second wife, is said to be one of the greatest of the masterworks at The Courtauld. She is 16 and about to be wed to the 53-year-old artist. The artist used black, red, and white chalk (retouched with pen and brown ink in some details). She is about to lift off a veil that is suspended from her headdress which looks like a bar bell to contemporary eyes. She looks directly at the viewer with a startling mix of bravado and vulnerability.
This is the first time this prized collection has been made available on loan. Many of the drawings are being shown for the first time in New York. Don’t miss it. On view through January 23, 2012. The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street; 212-288-0700, www.frick.org.