Arts: Renaissance Drawings Exhibit Drama

Drawn to Drama; Italian Works on Paper, 1500-1800, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Above: Clockwise from top left. Detail of Head of a Woman, Early 1490s by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. Deatil of Standing Male Nude, c. 1735-40, by Francesco Fontebasso. The Choice of Hercules, 1712, by Paolo de Matteis.

If you ever wonder how much total fun art can be when demonstrating maximum discipline, intense powers of observation and over-the-top creative flair, you should really see an exhibit like Drawn to Drama at The Clark Art Institute in northwestern Massachusetts. Including work from both The Clark’s own collection and from that of Robert Loper, this exhibit of drawings is a torrent of creative energy revealing the Italian Renaissance narrative tradition depicting mythological, religious and historical events and figures designed to fire passion.  “Only these subjects,” says the accompanying essay about the thinking of the era, “could raise (the viewer’s) moral consciousness.”

Plato’s Cratylus said that “man is the measure of all things” and the Italian Renaissance artists on display here, being re-discoverers of the wisdom and creative power of Ancient Greece, depict men and women in their effusion of roles as heroes, victims, saints, seductresses, seers, hermits, gods, Virgins and saviors. The drawing is simply a pleasure to behold with dynamic human forms in poses from the sublime to the gallant to the fanciful, a rollicking trek into the world of pen, ink, wash, chalk, line and colored papers – i.e., all the great draughtsmanly traditions that make European art the joy that it is to observe today.

 Classical European styles and techniques, which never will fall out of fashion by dint of their universal quality and elegance, abound in Drawn to Drama – superhuman figures, centaurs, putti, cherubs, coronations, flying figures, child-eating gods, rearing horses and mythical heroes along with crucifixions and other Christian iconography all joining to create a world of narrative spectacle. There’s even a 17th century manuscript in Italian (boy, do I wish I could read Italian) by Leonardo (1452-1519) called Treatise on Painting (Trattato della Pittura), but illustrated by a later artist. It covers issues like perspective, light, color, motion, gesture and drapery, all those things that make these drawings what they are.

Perhaps the most smile-inducing work in this show – and there are many – is the pen, ink and wash drawing on blue paper by Paolo de’ Matteis (1662-1728) of The Choice of Hercules of 1712 (see accompanying illustration above, bottom image) showing the mythical figure with his trademark lion skin clothing and club. Beckoning seductively at his right is the half-draped female figure of Pleasure, while the fully-clothed Virtue stands to the left pointing off toward the heavens to indicate the fame and immortality awaiting Hercules in a life of hardship and toil. Hercules, amusingly, appears to be merely distracted to the pleadings of Virtue, as Pleasure seeks his attentions.

All three figures are hefty in proportion, reflecting the aesthetic of another era. Notice Pleasure's hand on Hercules' club, obviously a wink from the artist that the viewer feels throughout this show.

In Sheet of Studies for a Frescoed Ceiling of 1578 by Jacopo Palma il Giovane (1548-1628), a classic sketch page, this time of heads from profile to three-quarter view, shows how artists once indeed understood and appreciated the human figure and head as “the measure of all things”. Giovane worked in pen and ink, and so there is little room for error. And he makes none, for these portraits are spot-on descriptions of the human head and face in a variety of poses and gestures, all seemingly dashed off by an artist little known to history but displaying the type of draughtsmanly discipline with which great art once was equated.

In Standing Male Nude of 1735 (see accompanying illustration above, upper right) by Francesco Fontebasso (1707-1769) we see the heroic man's body from the back with the artist perhaps flaunting his knowledge of anatomy and three-dimensional form. Today such a muscular figure might be mistaken for a body builder or some other extreme athlete, but in those days, such a build apparently was just another vehicle for a heroic tableau expressing a tale of morality, virtue, humility and the like. The tipsy nature of the figure, as if possibly is in the process of falling backward – in awe and veneration of Heavenly God perhaps? – shows the artist’s genuine talent in describing the human form in its infinite dispositions from resting to standing to whatever other gesture it may take.

In Head of a Woman (1490s, see accompanying illustration above, upper left) by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466-1516), we see a student of Leonardo’s using some of the classic techniques developed by his mentor including an idealized head type, gentle strokes of the  silverpoint tool, careful shading to evoke the head’s dimensionality and the ‘sfumato’ method of evoking a smoky atmosphere around the subject. This drawing even has Leonardo’s name printed at the bottom, which apparently was a practice for students in that day.

Other wonderful examples of draughtsmanship married to serious narrative include Saint Benedict Raising a Child (1740) by Giuseppi Marchese. In the pen, brown ink and brown wash work, a grieving father has lain his dead child before St. Benedict in order to seek the child’s rebirth as Benedict looks to Heaven and points to the child as an indication of himself as merely the link between God and man, and to indicate that God is the source of any miracle. In Galloping Centaur of (roughly) 1760, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo portrays a centaur (half man, half horse) with a bow in hand and galloping through a Renaissance landscape. Don’t see many of those around any more. In  St. Onophrius in the Wilderness of (roughly) 1615, Jacopo Palma il Giovane (1548-1628) portrays the haggard, mythical hermit with his trademark walking staff who was said to have lived in the Egyptian desert for 60 years.

The show also discusses the Renaissance tradition of ceiling painting, which included churches, civic buildings and private residences. Being large areas, ceilings offered big blank canvases to artists and so sometimes were subdivided. Secular buildings offered mythological and allegorical pictures, while churches focused only on Christian images. And ceilings offered unique pictorial challenges and opportunities. Figures could float and fly and be suspended in air since, in concept, they were. Foreshortening abounded. In one study, by Johan Paul Schor (1615-1679) called Saturn Devouring his Children of 1635, the Roman god is represented reclining in a cloudlike, floating mass with one child’s arm in his mouth, preparing to consume those children who might challenge his power. Somehow the allegorical significance and the superb draughtsmanship ease us into the gruesome nature of the scene which is portrayed like many such tableaus, as a fact of some other world’s life to be depicted in the best form possible.

Another rougher sketch in pen and ink is The Coronation of the Virgin  of (roughly) 1795 by Giuseppe Cades (1750-1799). In a flurry of pen strokes, the crowning of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, is depicted in a cloudlike atmosphere. Coronations were popular images in this narrative genre. This sketch apparently was preparation for a ceiling painting.

In Studies of Horses of 1530 by Perino del Vaga (1501-47), one of the few animal subjects in this show, classical European drawing again is shown at its best, with rearing, snorting, turning and bolting horses pictured in one of those timeless multi-image sketch pages indicating every gesture that a horse could make, all shrunk down to 11 by 15 inches. No wonder all those horse sculptures and paintings dot European history; the subject is second only to man in its drama, it seems. This drawing reminds us in a small way of the Parthenon's marble relief friezes of 2,000 years previous, which set the standard for equine imagery. Battle scenes including horses were popular with Renaissance artists and audiences.

An exhibit like Drawn to Drama is one of those rare gems that puts together in one space ideas that marked an entire era or epoch. Many of these drawing come from Mr. Loper's private collection and never have been seen before in public. How lucky we are to be able to enjoy them.

It is plain to see that the Renaissance was an intellectually prosperous time when ideas of Greek Classicism were reborn in new media and subject matter. We do have Greek vase paintings to show us how the Ancients interpreted heroic figures in two dimensions… on curved surfaces, even!… that never would have survived the ages on paper or canvas.

These Drawn to Drama drawings show us things that time has not had the power to destroy, and never will.

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