Saturday, March 05, 2005

Rubens, Draftsman

I went to see the Met's Rubens exhibit this afternoon. I had been wanting to go for a while since it focussed on his drawings and preparatory sketches.

Drawing has been making a comeback. Once considered a minor art, suitable for young ladies or the back-drawer production of painters, it got thrown out with the bathwater during the twentieth century. In the past four years (or so), many younger artists have been showing some impressive drawing--and, perhaps more importantly, galleries are taking chances on exhibiting drawing.

Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn, New York can take some credit for this trend, I think. The head curator, Joe Amrhein, has an excellent eye for art and a good instinct for creative marketing. His gallery represents a number of artists, but it also hosts "the flat files," a massive archive of young, unknown artists' work, which clients can browse on their own and purchase from at comparatively low prices. Since the files are flat, they tend to contain works on paper; since the artists are poor, they tend to work in cheap media. And Joe likes drawing. The former curator of the Whitney, the guy who was too experimental to keep, plucked a lot of art from Pierogi for his shows. Manhattan galleries in general have been feeling some hipster-envy towards Brooklyn, and of course most of the galleries in Brooklyn have benefitted from Pierogi's more mainstream draw.

Another factor in the trend, alas, is the high-end auction market. If you want an old, dead, well-reputed painter's work, you'd better have several millions. There just aren't very many Old Master (or even 19th-century Master) oil paintings out there any more, and if you want to buy one, you'll be bidding against institutions and mafia. Simple supply and demand: "Helas, madame, we have no more Delacroix on canevas in your price range, but, regard, here is a lovely little Delacroix gouache..." About three years ago in Paris, I saw an extraordinary private collection of Old Master and 19th-century French Master drawings, which the collectors had been able to acquire quietly for the past twenty years. Such a collection would be prohibitively expensive to gather today. The collectors, whose name, helas, I can neither remember nor easily find on google, were a French couple, which means that by showing their collection in public (for the first time), they were inviting a tax audit. I still understand this exhibition as a public declaration of victory: as in, "we were collecting drawings [and with the proper paperwork!] when nobody else valued them, and behold what you now desire!"

So, a long way around to saying that drawing has arrived. Which gets me back to Rubens.

I'm still excited that the Met dedicated a major exhibition to drawing (even if it was a single Old Master artist), but I went away strangely disappointed.

Rubens was a virtuoso draftsman, no doubt, but he was first and foremost a painter, and that preference of medium shows up in his drawing (with a few exceptions). Almost all of his chalk or pen drawing are augmented with washes, which of course isn't itself a bad thing, but the strokes of chalk and pen aren't usually excited. Strokes are instead modulated, almost effaced, in order to suggest volume and light, again, a desirable effect, but one that privileges more painterly techniques; Da Vinci and Rembrant enjoyed tinkering with the line between the volume of painterly blending and the flatness of drawing's lines.

The play of light and shadow is often notational; a deep mark of shadow seems to announce to the viewer: "put darker paint here." In Rubens's later sketches, the background chalk drawing was done by an often anonymous apprentice, and Rubens went over the darkness with a white, red, and/or blue wash. Visually, this can be very interesting--there's an elaborate Cruxification with a blue-gray wash overlay that becomes almost Pop with the sudden disjunctions of light and dark--but it clearly subordinates the drawing to the next medium, usually oil, but sometimes engraving. (Displayed are a couple of woodblock prints after Rubens that are simply stunning--rich blacks, incredible detail, bold and technically tricky use of white, really sophisticated use of a medium not designed for such Baroque content. Unfortunately, I've already forgotten the artist's name.)

What I love about Rubens's painting is his sensual use of color and his fleshy exuberance. His drawings were restrained and technical by comparison. The pieces that best captured the lavish quality of his painting were what the curators dubbed "compositional drawings," which emphasized the accumulation of moving bodies in a tight space. The strokes here were basic, though fluent and precise, for the most part. (One memorable exception is a sketch illustrating Hercules strangling the lion, which in its reworkings gained a degree of action that may have been entirely unintentional.)

There were a couple of landscape drawings, which stood out as utterly different from the rest. The curatorial notes suggested that these were done for Rubens's pleasure, that they were never reworked or shown. One of them, a dusk scene of trees reflected in a pond, with a red glare, reminded me of Rousseau--but with an evocative blank space occupying much of the paper. (Rousseau's winter-scapes in the Musee d'Orsay work in similar directions, but with less peacefulness.) There's something intriguing about these sketches de plaisance, but when I think about the Brueghals drawing exhibit I saw at the Met three years ago--where I was first acquainted with the "Master of the Mountain"--I remain only intrigued, not impassioned, by Rubens's landscapes.

I feel like I'm carping. It was an extraordinary show by a true virtuoso, and everyone should see it. I am glad that the Met put on a show devoted to drawing. I am glad to have seen Rubens's drawings. Still, the introductory notes to the exhibit made clear that Rubens considered his drawings to be preparatory to his paintings, that he wanted them kept in the family if any of them proved to be artists, and that he understood them to be good in their own way and useful for further artistic endeavor. Phrased that way, I agree.


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