For the Love of the Line

Two Art Exhibitions Reveal What It Is About Drawing That Endures

<i>The Conversion of St. Paul</i> by Paolo Farinati
The Conversion of St. Paul by Paolo Farinati

An empty space is where it always begins, the empty space of a sheet of paper or parchment, a canvas or block of stone. What the material is doesn't matter so much as the fact that the space is blank; it starts with a void. A hand comes to rest there and presses the tip of an instrument to the blank surface. The hand moves and behind the instrument emerges a trail of graphite, of charcoal, of ink, across the void. A mark is made and a new universe is created.

<i>L'Homme Cheval</i> by Andre Masson
L'Homme Cheval by Andre Masson

Drawing is that simple and that profound. It can be as crude as a slash across a page, and yet even the most primitive scrawl has an uncanny power to describe the world around us. In just a few basic strokes, it can suggest a landscape, a dwelling, an animal, a human, a face. Drawing gives us a bit of the world distilled to its graphic essence -- dots, lines, patches of black -- while still representing the spirit of the thing, sometimes with an eloquence that is astonishing.

Although the same quality may be accomplished with a brush and paint, drawing remains the more primal mode of expression. It is a form that generally relies on only two hues, a dark and a light, that play off each other in degrees of contrast -- an elemental condensation of life to opposing and complementary shades, the yin and the yang. It is a form prized for its immediacy, the form of the sketch, the study, the cartoon -- the mode we use to capture an image quickly, employing bold outlines and hard edges, short-cuts for setting what we see to paper.

<i>Drapery Study </i>by Circle of Raphael
Drapery Study by Circle of Raphael

For all its roughness, however, drawing is capable of exceptional intimacy. That can be felt in the contact of hand and paper, the flesh of the palm meeting the surface of the artwork and brushing against it as the instrument of creation is moved. It can be felt in the fingers' caress of the instrument, in the way they guide the development of the image so closely. There, focused in the motion of pen or pencil, one's sense of the shaping of lines is heightened, such that the sweep of a curve, the arc of a stroke, becomes a very personal and sensual activity -- almost a kiss.

Perhaps that is where one truly comes to know drawing: in the love of the line. What sculpture offers in texture, what painting and prints offer in color, drawing gives us in the line -- an artistic element of boundless variety, capable of expressing mood, tone, characteristics both physical and emotional. In the thick, the thin, the heavy, the light, the scratchy, the loose, the fluid, the refined, lines tell us what is going on in a drawing, what the artwork is about. The long, smooth line can describe the contour of a body or an object with elegance; the short, thick line can evoke weight, gravity, drama. To be able to see these qualities and what they contribute to a piece of art, to know the line, is discover the appeal of drawing that has endured through the ages.

<i>Untitled </i>by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Untitled by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

For those of us who feel an ardor for the line and the form over which it reigns, October provides a priceless opportunity to be enraptured. Between the two exhibitions "Old Master Drawings From the Suida-Manning Collection," currently on display in the upstairs galleries of the Blanton Museum of Art's Art Building site, and "Selected 20th-Century Master Drawings," one of the premiere shows at the new Norwood Gallery on West Seventh, we can indulge our eyes in samples of the art spanning five centuries. The shows are markedly different in almost every respect -- size, scope, period of history, tradition -- but they complement each other most agreeably. Where the Old Master works speak to our love of the body as it appears in nature, the 20th-Century Master works address our modern desire to move beyond the natural, to abstract what we see. Where the older pieces work on the grand scale of epics, the newer pieces operate on a modest, human scale, personal and intimate. Together, the exhibitions give us a sense of where drawing has traveled over the last five centuries, how it has changed. But they also affirm what remains constant about drawing, the element which continues to serve artists and speak to audiences: the line. There is always the line.

"Old Master Drawings" is by far the more spectacular of the shows. While it includes only a quarter of the total drawings in the magnificent Suida-Manning Collection acquired last fall by UT, the exhibition still boasts more than 100 works of European art dating from the 1470s to the 1790s, with work by such prominent artists as Raphael, Caravaggio, Cambiaso, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. As other writers have already noted, the Suida-Manning Collection is a treasure, both for the exquisite quality of the artistry it contains and for the window it offers into the development of European art over four centuries. For this presentation of drawings, curator Jonathan Bober plays to the latter virtue, arranging most of the works in a chronological progression. Thanks to this, even the casual viewer is able to perceive the evolution of certain pictorial techniques and approaches to subject matter as she moves through the galleries.

<i>The Holy Family </i>by Francesco Fontebasso
The Holy Family by Francesco Fontebasso

But it's possible to ignore the historical structure of the show and still be captivated by the exhibition. The drawings themselves are so dynamic that they work their magic on you. In many pieces, the image is purposefully dramatic -- a Biblical scene teeming with people, an episode from Greek or Roman myth -- and these have a particularly vigorous allure. Look at Paolo Farinati's The Conversion of Saint Paul, its central figure almost lost among the dense jumble of human and equine flesh; the depiction sucks us into the chaos of the moment. And in Amphitrite, attributed to Giulio Benso, the title figure stands on a shell in the midst of a turbulent sea, her face turned upward with an expression of anxiety that suggests all of heaven is about to drop on her head.

But even in the more serene works -- the domestic tableaux of saints and holy children, the portraits of gods and goddesses, the plain studies of the human form -- the drawings resonate with graphic power. In Francesco Fontebasso's The Holy Family, the artist renders the face of the Christ Child with little more than inky dots for eyes and a squiggle for a mouth, yet his command of these basic elements is such that we see a beatific babe gazing at his mother, a charming smile lighting his lips. Similarly, in Personification of Justice, Etienne Parrocel sets in the brow of this figure nothing more than a black dot with two downturned crescents above it, but it reads as the heavy-lidded eye of this human virtue -- watchful, compassionate, and somewhat wistful, too. Here, and throughout the exhibition, these works reveal the elegant simplicity of drawings; so much mass, dimension, and color is reduced to line and spots of black, and yet they provide so much fullness of form, emotion, spirit.

<i>Christ Healing the Blind Man </i>by Federico Zuccaro
Christ Healing the Blind Man by Federico Zuccaro

The same lesson holds for the nine drawings that comprise "Selected 20th-Century Master Drawings" at the cozy, sun-drenched Norwood. While the rampant diversity of art styles in this century presents a much greater challenge to anyone wanting to unify the works on display, it can be said that these latter-day drawings sustain the earlier traditions of simplicity of form and complexity of content. It's most obvious in the representational works, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's untitled pencil drawing of two figures and Alberto Giacometti's Portrait d'Annette. Kirchner's bodies are defined by bold outlines and little more, the hair atop their heads uneven scribble marks. Giacometti's subject has slightly more dimension, but she is still a compendium of sketchy curves and lines and geometric shapes -- her eye, with its downward crescents for lids and eyebrows might almost have come from Parrocel's portrait of Justice. And in her there is a like emotional quality to that earlier subject, something in her unfocused gaze that suggests a depth of feeling. Melancholy, perhaps? Ennui? Just what she feels may be ambiguous, as is the connection between Kirchner's figures, but both drawings are charged with life and the emotion that colors it.

Some of the Norwood exhibition drawings, such as Wassily Kandinsky's study for Le Petit Rond Rouge or Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist Composition, might seem at first to run counter to this notion of emotional content. But the more you study and reflect upon them -- and the gallery's Alfred Kren and Catherine Craft have set the pieces enticingly around the space so that you want to circle through again and again to study and reflect upon them -- the more their shapes and arrangement on the page can evoke associations with feelings. Kandinsky's composition for this study leaves ample space around his somewhat whimsical forms, suggesting freedom and playfulness. (Is that a carnival I see?) Malevich compresses his shapes tightly together, and the blockiness of the overlapping shapes and heavy use of blacks provoke a response that is altogether more somber, if not downright grim.

But perhaps that's coming at these works from the wrong angle entirely. Perhaps it's enough to say that the shapes and the arrangement of the shapes create a whole that is complex and stimulating, that rewards closer inspection and contemplation. Either way, these works share the quality of the figurative drawings in both the Norwood and the UT exhibitions to derive visual punch from the vibrancy and variety of the line.

Ah yes, there is always the line. The line endures, snaking seductively along the edge of a body, describing the substance of flesh with alluring veracity. It is there in Giovanni Battista Piazzetta's Study of a Male Nude as Hercules, in the curve of the underside of his forearm, and the one along the back of his calf, and it is there again in the backside of one of Kirchner's figures, a great, rounded rump resting solidly on a bed. The line endures, arcing so gracefully as to be beautiful in and of itself, as an elegant line, and yet enhancing its beauty by what it describes. See it in Greuze's The Arms of a Girl Holding a Bird, where that curve suggests flesh, gravity, muscles, all held carefully in check so as to not harm a delicate winged creature? The line endures, its ragged repetition over the same space energetically constructing the architecture of a face, as in Portrait d'Annette. The line endures, in one place wafting upward in languid bends like a sweet dream and in another crossing itself in aggressive scratches of ink like some phantasmagoric vision, as in Andre Masson's L'homme Cheval. The line endures, marking out the mystery we sense in simple geometric forms, of line meeting line and spawning angles and shapes that link us to something larger, as in Drapery Study, by the Circle of Raphael and Malevich's Suprematist Composition.

The line endures because all it takes is a mark and a new universe is created. Here, now, are two shows that give us five centuries' worth of eloquent testimony to this truth. end story

"Selected 20th-Century Master Drawings" is on display through October 23 at the Norwood Gallery, 114 W. Seventh, Ste. 125. Call 499-8848 for information.

"Old Master Drawings From the Suida-Manning Collection" is on display through October 24 at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, UT Art Building, 23rd & San Jacinto. Call 471-7324 for information.

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