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Stepping Out of Character

Fascinated by drawings, tracing their connections.

July 05, 1998|S. Irene Virbila | Food Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mindwe thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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Like everybody, I drew, incessantly, as a child. And then I didn't draw anymore. Once I could read, I spent every minute lost in the worlds of Dickens and Jane Austen and Victor Hugo. In my 20s, though, a guard in the Uffizi, when I came back to look at a show of Renaissance drawings for the third day in a row, surprised me by offering to let me leaf through a portfolio of Michaelangelo's drawings. Without the frame or the glass, the trace of the pencil across the piece of paper was as fresh and immediate as a drawing made that morning. And I shivered at the power a mark on paper could have across time.

Drawing fascinates, I think, because everyone has done it at one time or another. The means are simple--a pencil, a crayon, a piece of charcoal. And even an untrained eye can unravel the labyrinth of line. Looking at a drawing, I can almost hear the scratching of the nib. The dull scrape of the charcoal. The whisper of the thumb blurring the edge of a line. Lost in reading/contemplating a drawing, I dream.

These are some of the works on paper that interest me:

HENRI MATISSE

Matisse's decorous, fluent line, which records with a minimum of detail a gesture, the lift of an eyebrow, the languorous curves of a nude. The equivalent of haiku.

PIERRE BONNARD

The blurred pencil drawings that fill the pages of Bonnard's diary, which he used as a reference throughout his painting life: a woman (his wife Marthe) washing or in the bath, feeding a dog at the table, still-lifes (baskets of fruit, vases of flowers, whatever was at hand), landscapes of the south of France. Most are in pencil, hastily scrawled, as if the scene before him would disappear if he didn't get it all down quickly enough. I just found a little book called "Sketches of a Journey," the record of French writer Octave Mirbeau's motorcar trip through Europe at the turn of the century, with marvelously wry ink drawings by Monsieur Bonnard.

INGRES

The clarity of Ingres' figures and portraits in pencil. One of the great draftsman of his age, he favored a line that is a marvel of precision and grace. Though Ingres was a prodigious drawer, reproductions of his drawings are hard to find, which is why I covet the fabulously expensive book that collects them all--both finished drawings and studies--in one thick volume.

COROT

The fluidity of the French landscape painter Corot's cliche verre drawings that capture the sway of trees, the wind, the bleached light of the sky in a loose, affectionate scribble. The contrast between the control of his paintings and the abandon of his drawings is wonderful.

OSKAR KOKOSCHKA

The furious scrawl of Oskar Kokoschka's crayon capturing the weather of expressions that move across a woman's face as she listens to a concert. I also admire his incisive portraits, including those of his lover Alma Mahler, which limn the contours of their faces with a web of wavery lines like a blind person learning a face by touch.

FRANK AUERBACH

The portraits Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter who lives in England, creates in charcoal, worked over and over again, as he scrubs his first marks, his first impressions, back to the paper again, leaving a ghost of an image. And then begins again. As the layers build, the face swims up from the gloom, held in focus beneath muscular lines of black.

GIACOMETTI

In the same way, I'm fascinated by the snarled tracks of Giacometti's ballpoint tracing the volumes of his sitter. The attenuated forms seem to crackle with electricity. It's as if he's attempting to both carve out and sever the figure from its background with his lashings of line. Even more than his sculptures, these drawings have an arresting presence.

DELACROIX

Delacroix's sketchbooks of Morocco capture the exuberance of traveling somewhere exotic. They're filled with quick pencil studies, some with the names of the colors scribbled in, before he added a watercolor wash: pages of detailed drawings of Moroccan costume, the folds of a burnoose or head wrap, the mute landscapes of the desert.

TURNER

Turner filled dozens of sketchbooks with landscapes, in pencil and watercolor washes so pale they seem like only the residue or memory of color and light.

JOHN SINGER SARGENT

With only a few colors in his paint box, mostly ultramarine and burnt sienna and combinations thereof, John Singer Sargent produces some astonishing watercolors of Venice. In a few swift strokes of his brush, he captures the intricate interlacings of light and shadow, water and stone. I like to imagine the painter in his battered panama bobbing on the Grand Canal in a gondola, with his sketchbook balanced on his knees, seeing, really seeing, what's in front of him.

Drawing is seeing. I noticed, when I went to last year's master drawing exhibition at LACMA that a 10-year-old kid had written this comment in the guest book: "I wish I could be such a good drawer."

Me too.

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