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A Cabinet of Drawings

The Ransom Center reminds us of the power of seeing originals over reproductions

Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Dec. 19, 2008

Arts Review

'A Cabinet of Drawings'

Harry Ransom Center

through Jan. 4

Paint on parchment, pigment on paper, stains of the human mind impressed upon the battered, flattened flesh of plants:

We're so used to seeing copies of creations, especially in these days of Internetted everything-is-everywhere, we can forget the power of the original until the original is there in front of us, again or for the first time, in all its irreducible majesty. Majesty, yes, and one of its finest courts is UT's Harry Ransom Center, where the exhibition "A Cabinet of Drawings" is currently ruling the visual and textural spectra as rendered by some of the finest artists in history.

Here are initial studies and sketches for larger works by such giants as Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti (La Pia de Tolomei in colored chalk on paper) and Edward Burne-Jones (life-sized cartoons for stained-glass windows), theatrical and industrial designs by Norman Bel Geddes, enormous photographs by Man Ray, a Diego Rivera portrait of himself and wife Frida Kahlo and one of Jean Cocteau. Because so much of the Ransom Center's archives are predicated on things literary, there's a large section of original illustrations for printed matter: Arthur Rackham's watercolor for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," a James Bingham illustration for one of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason mysteries, a William Blake rendition of Satan Calling Up His Legions.

Perhaps you've encountered copies of these works while rummaging used bookstores or the holdings of public libraries over the years, perhaps while surfing helter-skelter through the World Wide Web's inundation of visuals; even then, you've been missing out. The nuances of shades, the faintest shifts of texture where fabric has been altered by its knowledge of a medium's fluid, the greater context of ground later truncated for ease of reproduction: All of these are vibrantly present to stimulate the eyes and their detail-hungry brain. The effect is, cumulatively, stunning.

More examples you want before venturing on-campus to the treasures waiting behind the HRC's exterior walls of etched glass? OK: Doodles by Samuel Beckett in the notebook in which he wrote Watt. The original drawings of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A meticulous Al Hirschfeld caricature of Ernest Hemingway reading Joyce's Ulysses.

Stand amid these artifacts and all the others, and feel the waves of personal industry, of yellow-edged and timeworn actuality marking your own place in the chronicles of artistic achievement. It's a feeling you can't get via reproductions; it's an experience that's beyond the reach of the most killer of apps; it's what the Ransom Center does so very well in the realm of literature and the printed visual arts, in documenting the foundations on which even the most virtual of expressions must be built.

Meatspace. Let them show you it.

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