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ART REVIEW : 'Drawings' Survey Captures Masters at Ease

November 03, 1995|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

A lovely historical survey of some 100 drawings is so various as to inspire large thoughts. A traveling show titled "Master Drawings From the Stanford University Museum of Art," it recently lodged in UCLA's Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.

Content ranges from the late Renaissance to early Modernism and includes names as renown as Tintoretto, Poussin, Boucher, Gericault and Kokoschka. However, since drawing is the most casual and intimate of forms, they catch grand masters at ease and small masters in moments of exceptional inspiration.

Here, for example, the Venetian Mannerist Tintoretto is glimpsed in a "Study After Michelangelo's Group of Samson Slaying the Philistines." The muscular protagonist stands nude. He twists to strike an antagonist crouched between his straddled legs. But the fallen figure is almost impossible to read clearly. It looks like some anatomical chimera made of ill-matched body parts. The effect is strikingly surreal, as if the 16th-Century artist's subconscious got loose, creating an image with a modern twist, like a Francis Bacon.

Benjamin West was the first American to gain a large reputation in 18th-Century England. Today he tends to get stereotyped as a starchy academician. You'd never know it from the airy energy of his "Study for the Head of an Angel."

Some of these drawings delight because they deliver exactly what one expects. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, for example, is his usual virtuoso self in "The Adoration of the Magi." A few well-placed ink washes, a flurry of pen lines and, bingo, a complex group of convincing figures sculpted in light and ready to be translated into one of his breathtaking Baroque/Rococo ceiling decorations. It's as gratifyingly familiar as Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."

Tiepolo's son Giovanni Domenico does the opposite and surprises, enigmatically. His drawing "The Hanging" concluded a long, late series the artist executed in retirement. Like the rest, it depicts multiple twin clown figures of the familiar commedia dell'arte character Punchinello. This one shows a grisly mass execution that may have been inspired by the war of 1797 that cost Venice its independence. Another example proving the long tenure of the surreal spirit, it's made all the more mordant by the title of the series--"An Entertainment for Children."

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Such works, though, contradict the general spirit of the survey. What's most memorable is the extraordinary ease and felicity with which these artists drew. They were so at home with their expressive instruments that there is a seamless continuum between observation and expression. Thus, an artist as little known as Ottavio Maria Leoni could produce a portrait drawing of a young woman as visually and emotionally convincing as a photograph. The artist's control of line and light lends the subject an almost eerie sense of physical presence. Her demeanor of sweet seriousness may be an invention but formal authority makes it completely convincing.

Angelica Kauffmann made a particularly telling example in her "Portrait of Dorthea Hellen." A plain, rather pinched young woman, she has such an aura of intelligent amusement that you like her instantly.

This kind of work is like nothing so much as a novelist's written description so well observed and deftly rendered that fiction seems like fact. The connection reminds us of the primitive link between drawing and writing. Humankind's first way of writing was certainly drawing, which evolved into pictographs and eventually alphabets.

Asian art still retains an obvious connection between handwritten calligraphy and drawing. It's all the same line. In the West, the invention of mechanical type eventually sundered that connection causing us to forget that drawing and writing are two fundamental manifestations of thinking out loud.

This exhibition acts as a nice reminder that as late as the 19th Century educated Europeans were taught that if one can't both write and draw clearly one can't think straight, experience or express oneself fully.

The range of eloquence in the galleries is remarkable. A British artist like Alexander Cozens looked at landscape and saw sublime menace while the Italian Guardi saw stillness. A French academician like Thomas Couture observed civilization in the human face while Henry Monnier saw absurdity. It was all achieved with just the eye, the hand and a few simple tools. At bottom the exhibition proves drawing, like writing, a basic human activity for which there is no satisfactory substitute. Presented under the auspices of UCLA's Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, the show was selected by Stanford Curator Betsy G. Fryberger.

* UCLA at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., through Dec. 24, closed Mondays, (310) 443-7000.

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