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Friday, March 07, 2014

On the Under-Appreciated History of Drawing

That Santa Fe is a world-class art city was confirmed when I learned last Fall that an exhibit of the Spanish drawings from the British Museum would be making it’s only U.S. appearance at the New Mexico Art Museum in Santa Fe. Oh joy!

I attended the Renaissance to Goya show the weekend it opened and promised myself I’d go back when it was less crowded. Drawings need to be studied close up, which is hard to do when there are a lot of others jostling to do the same. 

I did finally return to it this past week … just days before the show closing on Sunday, March 9th. Needless to say, there would have been fewer people at my elbow had I got back in January, but I had an delightful 2 hours with the drawings nonetheless.

I hadn’t realized that art historians have long assumed that Spanish artists didn't draw much and produced little in terms of prints. This show (organized by Mark McDonald, curator of prints and drawings at the British Museum) served to challenge that notion to some degree. While McDonald contends that Spanish drawings are somewhat rare because they were not considered collectable works of art in their time, he did gather more than 130 sketches and prints to provide insight into four centuries of Spain's culture and history, including Murillo, Zurbaran, Ribera and Goya. There were quite a few exquisite drawings by artists I’ve not heard of before, as well as some by Tiepolo, who spent his last decade in Madrid.

I’m sometimes amazed that any drawing on paper has managed to survive the centuries. Indeed, many of these examples were marked with the stains and tears and folds that occurred as they were used and reused, as teaching tools and for developing compositions for paintings. The works in this show ranged from exploratory sketches to highly finished and detailed drawings. Media included chalks, charcoal, and ink as well as engravings and lithographs. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of so many different ways of defining form and of modeling.

In my experience, drawings typically receive little attention in the teaching of art history. They are viewed as secondary to the real deal:  paintings and sculpture. But maybe drawing should be considered the first art. As children we start expressing ourselves visually, by drawing. Art sudents have traditionally started to learn to see, by drawing. Composition is worked out through drawing. Buildings start out on paper, as drawings. ...

Before going back to see the Renaissance to Goya exhibit last week, I was googling around in an attempt to learn more about drawing during the Renaissance.  I came across a website put together by Thomas Buser, a retired professor of Art History. Titled simply, History of Drawing, Buser says it is “a textbook and reference book available free to anyone who loves drawings.”

It’s well worth a look if you want to learn about the development of drawing style, materials, technique, and purpose from the 15th through the 20th centuries. The many images make it a really compelling resource. 

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