Between the limits of the discipline, as it is taught in graduate schools, and the structure of museological functions, exhibitions of drawings usually adhere to a restricted range of formats, which, while continuing to be viable for institutions and the public and useful for scholars in the field, can be felt as constricting for those who conceive and execute them. The scope of drawings exhibitions can be determined by time and/or place (stylistic categories), or an artistic personality (monographic), or collection (“Treasures on Paper from…”), and perhaps a few others. When a curator is faced with such a project, he may may find himself wrestling with an urge to break the mold and create something new.
If you wander around Sotheby’s and Christie’s during old master week with open ears, or if you converse a bit at a conference like the delightful and enlightening symposium held for the inauguration of the present exhibition, you are likely to hear some words about the disappearance of good drawings from the market, the ongoing retirement of dealers, the paucity of new ones to take their place, the scarcity of collectors, the resistance of museum directors and boards to these elitist and esoteric artworks, and, ultimately, the demise of the collecting of old master drawings—whereupon the interlocutors stare into space, as if they were on the deck of the sinking Titanic. If this were true, drawings would always continue to be available to the public and scholars, but the heart of the organism would be dead. The circulation of fresh blood—i.e. drawings—would have ceased.
Old Master Drawings, the successor to The Drawing Site, is now online. In it, Michael Miller offers articles about the history of drawing, the history of collecting, a reference work on the materials and techniques of drawing, and a page of news in the world of drawings: exhibitions, lectures, conferences, etc. There is also a retrospective of his work as a dealer in old master drawings as well as a few drawings for sale.
Knowing the Salon du Dessin at first hand, and contemplating its 2012 iteration, I find myself thinking back on on the world of master drawings as it was when I first entered it in 1980 and how it has changed over the years. Attended by over 13,000 people in 2010, the Salon is a large, public event which spans five days. It brings together the larger part of the world’s curators, scholars, collectors, and dealers in the field in a busy, but rarely overcrowded public space, the Palais de la Bourse. One can survey the available stock at the dealers’ stands, attend conferences, lectures, and guided tours, visit exhibitions at the Bourse and at Paris museums, as well as satellite enterprises around the Hôtel Drouot, where drawings can be had at auction, and further afield. There is a wealth of opportunities to learn about drawings, as well as to collect them. In 1980, no one thought that a fair of this size might ever exist in the field, and in its early years, during the 1990s, no one ever thought it would grow to these dimensions.
The crowds begin as one approaches the rear of the building: a long line, snaking back on itself contains those hopeful of gaining one of the 500 tickets on sale each day; further on, is a smaller queue of the luckier ones who had snapped up all the online tickets during the first three days of sale. Overall, the crowds are well behaved—for this is England—and approach their goal with good humor and a touch of the spirit of Dunkirk as they descend upon the National Gallery’s runaway success, Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan. It is not a large show, only some sixty paintings and drawings, but then Leonardo only began a score of paintings in a career spanning four decades. Of those paintings, fifteen autograph works survive, and four of these are generally deemed incomplete. To assemble almost every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milanese period in London is a notable achievement, and these works are supplemented by others associated with his followers and sometime collaborators in the most sustained period of productivity in the artist’s life.
Pollinated with the spirit of the Renaissance, spring-like, fresh and full of individual passion and wonder, the Pre Raphaelites went back to a state of painting when the Renaissance was in its stride if not its prime. Rather than seeing painting as a continuous development up to their own day, they when back to an approach and a world view at a point when art knew where it was going, striving toward a most sublime peak, a peak attained perhaps twice in western human history. The Pre Raphaelites took as their teachers and masters those of Titian’s, Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s and via intelligent imitation that went beyond mere copying they progressed, very roughly speaking, through the styles of the Italian Renaissance, and at times managed to break free of their teachers’ styles. They even wrote poems too. One can see something of this progression in the quite broad and thorough collection of their drawings and watercolors currently on display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, most of which come from the Tate and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
In The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer, the Clark produced a fundamentally different sort of exhibition, and a most enjoyable one, which should prove a fertile opportunity for Williams undergraduates and the general public to discover an important body of work from one of the West’s very great artists, Albrecht Dürer. Very few American museums can boast the depth in their holdings of a single artist to attempt this. In Abstract Expressionism the Museum of Modern Art has, with one of the strongest areas of their collection, just created the kind of experience one might find at the Prado or the Uffizi. The Clark’s holdings of Dürer prints are so extensive and of such high quality that they make it possible to offer a survey of similar quality, with 75 of 300 prints in all. The Clark possesses most of Dürer’s subjects and many impressions are of the highest quality. Hence, this exhibition is an ideal opportunity to get to know a body of work that occupies a central place in western culture…
Whenever a work of art changes hands there is always a story behind it. When a collection appears on the market an entire lifetime emerges, or, in the case of figures like Robert Lebel (1901-1986), a chapter in history. In the catalogue to the sale of his old master drawings, Sotheby’s manages to condense Lebel’s extraordinary range of interests and experience into a single paragraph. To say that he “defied classification” is not an exaggeration. An art historian and collector, he wrote essays, novels, as well as the first biography of Marcel Duchamp. He was a friend of André Breton, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lacan. During the Second World War the circle went into exile in New York, where Matta, Tanguy, and Claude Lévi-Strauss joined them. At this time Lebel acquired as special interest in American Indian art, especially Eskimo art. His pioneering collection of Eskimo masks was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2006. Now Sotheby’s has dispersed his important collection of old master and 19th-century drawings.