An Affection for Drawings, a Love of Paintings

Having been assigned the curatorial task of ushering Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings from the Minneapolis Institute of Art through the NCMA, I could not escape the thought that this show, like Rembrandt in America, would take me outside my comfort zone.

“If the fire alarm sounded and I was asked to take one work to safety, then it would likely be Edgar Degas’s Achille De Gas,” says curator Dennis Weller.

Vincent van Gogh, View of the Field behind Saint Paul’s Asylum in Saint-R©my-de-Provence

John Marin, The Sea, Maine

Detail of Guercino, HerculesBefore curating Rembrandt in America, for example, and in spite of being a 17th-century Dutch painting specialist, I had not entertained the idea of being a “Rembrandt person.” But the joy generated in watching more than 150,000 visitors share in the Rembrandt experience changed my attitude with regard to this Dutch master and my role in furthering his scholarship. 

Since I also do not consider myself a drawings specialist, this new assignment offered me an avenue to expand my horizons, for the bulk of the drawings were neither Dutch nor 17th century. Of the 100 works now on view, the Low Country drawings from the Renaissance and baroque number just seven, with one Dutch “Golden Age” sheet included: Seated Youth by Cornelis Saftleven. If I wanted to be greedy, I guess I could also claim Piet Mondrian’s Chrysanthemum from 1900, and one of Vincent van Gogh’s landscape drawings (View of the Field behind Saint Paul’s Asylum in Saint-R©my-de-Provence) as having Dutch origins.

Marks of Genius is on view at the NCMA through June 19, 2016.     

As the exhibition nears the end of its run in Raleigh, the question remains to what degree I have reoriented my interests toward drawings. While I would be kidding myself to think I have suddenly become a drawings aficionado after studying the material for just a short period, I do have a much greater appreciation for the medium. I’ve discovered a breathtaking range of drawing mediums and supports, a variety of drawing functions and mark making, and superb examples by some of the greatest artists in history.

In living with these drawings over the weeks and months, I’ve developed some favorites. John Marin’s 1921 watercolor of The Sea, Maine, brings memories of my visits to the island where he executed the work. Guercino’s pen and ink drawing of Hercules is breathtaking in terms of its energetic line. A Recital in a Monastery by Domenico Tiepolo, in spite of the call for silence above the doorway, pulsates with noise and movement. The simple line drawings by Picasso and Matisse are elegant in their simplicity.

But if the fire alarm sounded and I was asked to take one work to safety, then it would likely be Edgar Degas’s Achille De Gas, executed in thinned oil paint over graphite on paper prepared with oil and mounted on canvas. The only thing that keeps this example from falling into the category of painting is its paper support. Not surprisingly, the choice of this “almost” painting only confirms that my new affection for drawings has yet to diminish my love for paintings.     

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