Sunday, February 9, 2020

Christ: Life, Death, & Resurrection from the British Museum

Do you like finished or unfinished drawings?  Do you like French, English, German or Italian Drawings?  If you said the latter, you need to run not walk to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and if you answered something else you might find you actually like the Italian material as well.  What is the attraction?

“Christ: Life, Death, & Resurrection” is not a commentary on religion but rather an exhibition that illustrates the subject with many masterpieces from the British Museum.  There are more than 50 prints and drawings in the show drawn from  the British Museum’s collection of 50,000 drawings and 2 million prints.  I am focusing here on the drawings in the show. 

Santa Fe is one of the art capitals of the world, and there is a dealer or two here, but we do not often see major European Old Masters in our town.  This exhibition offers wonderful opportunity. Mind you as an Old Master drawings exhibition the works are often the first thoughts of the artist and might very well vary from the finished painting.

The show was conceived by the Keeper and head of the British Museum’s department of prints and drawings, Hugo Chapman. In his lecture at the exhibition opening he stated that he is not a very religious person. He undertook this project for a close friend, the Director of the Galleries at the University of San Diego, a private Roman Catholic institution. 

From Medieval times through the Renaissance, stories from the Bible were prime subjects for artists and one of the richest was the life of Christ, It gave them a wide range of depicting the human figure but with animals and landscapes could also be squeezed in if they desired.  Don’t forget that not only the Church but the privileged classes such and royalty requested these images, so they were bread and butter for the artists.

The biggest name in the show is, of course, Michelangelo and there are those who can wax lyrical about his drawings.  Personally, they do not excite me while his sculpture and paintings I could look at for hours.  In this case his subject is The Three Crosses., dating 1521-24.  Below the highly worked nude figures of Christ and the two thieves, there is a great deal of activity with execution workmen, soldiers, horses and mourners.  The figure of the Virgin lying in the arms of a mourner is even a prefiguration of the Lamentation.

When I first went to Florence with my parents my father was a big fan of the paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497)  so we visited the Medici Chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi to see the fresco that is Gozzoli’s most important work. The exhibition has a sheet of figure studies for the angels in the Adoration of the Magi, dating 1459-63.  Here is the drawing with the finished work in the apse of the chapel.

It is interesting to note that the British Museum was founded in 1753 and most of their drawings were acquired in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries yet some masterpieces arrived much later such as the Gozzoli which was acquired in 2017 in lieu of Inheritance taxes.

Another artist I love from this period is Fra Filippo Lippi (1421- ca. 1469).  The exhibition includes his circa 1460 sketch for the Crucifixion.  The` drawing has had other attributions and differing thoughts on which painting or fresco it was created for.  The famed art historian, Bernard Berenson was the first to suggest Fra Filippo Lippi.  If you wish to see how confusing art history can be for curator, dealer and collector go to the British Museum site and search for this drawing then read the entry!

Moving to the next century there is a drawing by one of the most prolific and to my mind one of the best draughtsmen of the 16th century, Parmigianino (1503-1540).  This image of an Adoration of the Shepherds with the Virgin bathing the infant Jesus I find particularly poignant.  There are a number of other versions of this drawing sometimes with the figures reversed showing the artist depicting the scene from different angles and thinking how the figures would look best in a finished painting or fresco. If you click on the image and enlarge it, you will see a partial signature F. Parm, lower left, on the reverse of the drawing (not shown) is the name spelled out.

One of the most dynamic Crucifixions I have ever seen is this 17th century colorful oil on paper drawing here attributed to Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664). They date this to the second half of the artists life.  It is not only dramatic with what seems like a great wind blowing but you can see god flying in to watch this horror happening to his son.  The Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) used similar wind effects and I wonder whether Castiglione had not seen his work.

There are several others I would like to mention but I think for my final image I am going to go back in time to a rather quirky one, a study of a dead Christ done for a Deposition.   It shows Christ seemingly hovering in the air which makes it seem extremely exciting and weird at the same time.  It is by the Roman artist, Giacomo Rocca. (1532-1605).  A former curator at the British Museum, Nicholas Turner identified this unusual drawing as for Rocca’s fresco of the “Deposition from the Cross” painted circa 1575 for the Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome.  The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a study for the complete composition.  The Oratorio, which has frescoes from floor to ceiling, is de-sanctified and used for concerts and lectures. in this photo the Deposition can be seen in the second bay from the right.

Not all the artists depicting the life of Christ in this exhibition are household names but putting the religious subject matter aside you can simply bathe in the superb draughtsmanship and the imagination that inspired these works.

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