Beyond the Pencil Sketch

What is a drawing? While that seems like a simple question, one’s answer may require a significant amount of revision after visiting the NCMA’s exhibition Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Amedeo Modigliani, Female Bust in Red, 1915, red gouache and black ink wash on wove paper laid down on Japan, 14 x 10 5/16 in., Minneapolis Institute of Art

Egon Schiele, Standing Girl, circa 1910, Cont© crayon and tempera wash over black chalk on brown wrapping paper, laid down, 52 â…œ x 20 ⅝ in., Minneapolis Institute of ArtAccustomed as many of us are to thinking of drawings as pencil marks on notebook-sized paper, how might we explain works that extend in size from just a few inches tall to nearly 100 inches? Furthermore, the drawings on view incorporate marks made from a nearly unlimited variety of materials, including graphite, watercolor, gouache, Cont© crayon, chalks of various colors, charcoal, tempera washes, thinned oil paint, casein, inks, shellac, and even gold.

The only common denominator to the drawings on view is their support–paper.

Even here, however, the papers employed represent a range of types and degrees of coarseness. In many examples the artist went a step further by preparing the surface with colored washes. It should also be noted that a handful of examples were executed on parchment (prepared animal skin) and in one case on vellum (calfskin) for the Amaryllis jaune by Pierre-Joseph Redout©.

The collective results of the exhibition are truly extraordinary, with the names of artists represented both familiar–Bearden, Boucher, David, Degas, Delacroix, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Van Gogh, Homer, Hopper, Ingres, Kirchner, Klimt, Lichtenstein, Magritte, Matisse, Modigliani, Mondrian, Toulouse-Lautrec, Warhol, Watteau, and Grant Wood–and largely unknown. Drawings date from the 15th century, for the illuminated manuscript and antiphonary pages, to 2008 in the example (Tress IV) by Mequitta Ahuja.

Pierre-Joseph Redout©, Amaryllis jaune (Yellow Amaryllis), circa 1800—06, watercolor and graphite pencil on vellum, 18 ½ x 13 ¼ in., Minneapolis Institute of Art

Mequitta Ahuja, Tress IV, 2008, waxy chalk on paper, 96 ½ x 45 in., Minneapolis Institute of Art, © 2008 Mequitta Ahuja, reproduced with permission of the artistOver the centuries drawing became a crucial element of the creative process, particularly as paper became more available to artists. Even a brief survey of works in Marks of Genius–for starters, Romare Bearden’s Factory Workers, Winslow Homer’s The Conch DiversFemale Bust in Red by Amedeo Modigliani, and Egon Schiele’s Standing Girl–offers ample evidence of the diversity that individuals brought to the medium of drawing.

As visitors make their way through the exhibition, they will notice works are not organized by date, but rather by function–learning to draw, storytelling, a sense of place, from creative spark to finished work, abstraction, and imitation-emulation-appropriation. Such an arrangement allows viewers to consider how individual artists, working decades or even centuries apart, tackled similar tasks.

Clearly, Marks of Genius calls for a rethinking of one’s definition of drawing. Be sure to put aside your preconceptions on the nature of drawing before entering the galleries. 

The exhibition runs March 19—June 19 and is ticketed with American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top