Sunday, November 11, 2012

Master Drawings

No, this is not about our annual January joint dealer exhibition of our master drawings but rather the title of an exhibition at the Frick in New York.  It is called “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery”.

Between college and graduate school I spent a year abroad and during part of that time I received a certificate for completing several courses in the Fine & Decorative Arts as well as architecture.  I took advantage of being in London by also auditing courses at the Courtauld Institute for advanced learning in art history which was founded by a philanthropic trio: the industrialist and art collector  Samuel Courtauld (1876 –1947), the diplomat and collector Lord Lee of Fareham (1868-1947), and the art historian Sir Robert Witt (1872-1952).  All three of the co-founders left their art collections to the Institute, forming the basis of the Courtauld Collection. Witt also founded the Witt Library a treasured photographic resource for art historians. When I studied there the collection was housed in a Robert Adam house on Portman Square along with the art history Institute, but in 1989 it moved to Summerset House on the Thames.  The exhibition is introduced by a Canaletto panoramic view from Somerset Gardens looking toward London Bridge, which ironically was bought in 1967 and placed in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

"View from Somerset Gardens" by Canaletto

I was well aware of the Courtauld’s paintings and have seen them in various shows at the Courtauld Gallery and in loan exhibitions.  What I was not aware of was the wealth of the drawings collection, consisting of 7,000 works on paper and in particular the Old Master collection.

Stephanie Buck from the Courtauld and Colin Bailey from the Frick have done a masterful job of picking works to give an overall view of the high quality of the collection.  I have seen the show three times now and every time I go through it I find more “prime examples”.  Of course, if you can cover from Leonardo to Picasso how wrong can you go?  There are also works by Durer, Pieter Brueghel the elder, Rubens, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Bernini, Watteau, Goya, Ingres, and Turner etc. etc. etc.  It is really a jaw dropping display.

Naturally, I must choose a few to write about and as usual I will pick on personal favorites.  But I should tell you first that I asked my wife, the curator, what her choices would be and we often did not agree.  In a show like this there are, of course, no wrong choices but inevitably I would pick the picture that would be called the more “popular” one and Penelope would go for the unusual image.  Suffice it to say, the choices are mine, but on some we agreed.

One such and my overall favorite is an Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the only German drawing among the six drawings that date from the 15th century.  In fact, I believe that it is the only German drawing in the show.  From World War I until relatively recently in the Anglo-Saxon countries there was a deep prejudice against anything German.   Helen Frick, Henry Clay’s daughter would not allow any German pictures to be bought and again, until relatively recently, the Metropolitan Museum would not allow German art to be acquired.  I actually have difficulty thinking of this dream-like girl as a Wise Virgin because she seems just an innocent taking her first tender steps into the real world.  Durer made this drawing in 1493, when, after finishing his studies in Nuremberg he was on his way to Colmar to meet and learn from the marvelous painter and engraver, Martin Schongauer.  Unfortunately, Schongauer died before he got there but one can see that the latter’s work had a great influence on the young Durer.

"Wise Virgin" by Albrecht Durer

I am always fascinated by the reflections of nationalism in the history of art. One such is the Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1589-1680) East Façade of the Louvre, a project he did in a competition for the completion of the Louvre for Louis XIV.   The complex curves Bernini proposed come from the Italian Baroque vocabulary he developed for the Vatican in Rome and contrast dramatically with the iconic French straight colonnade actually built to the winning design of the Claude Perrault (1613-1688).

"East facade of the Louvre" by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Finally, another personal favorite is the Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) of “The Hypocondriac” as they call it on the label.  Here we see the sick patient listening to the pontificating doctor and not seeing the doctor’s assistant hiding behind the latter with a huge enema, which the patient probably knows is coming.  To my mind it is a slightly different interpretation of the same subject as “The Quack Doctor” that I learned about in Dutch 17th century painting.  But that is the fun of it.  There is no right and wrong.

"The Hypocondriac" by Honore Daumier

You have until January 27 to see the show but don’t delay I dare you to pick your favorites.  While I always find the brevity of my Missives frustrating this one has been particularly so because there are so many more drawings that I would like to mention.

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