Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now

RISD MUSEUM | OCTOBER 6, 2017 – JANUARY 7, 2018

“Suppose one could catch [one’s thoughts] before they became ‘works of art?’”1

Egyptian, Book of the Dead: the final judgement sceneca. 940 BC. Red and black ink on papyrus. Courtesy © The Trustees of the British Museum (2017). 

When Hugo Chapman, the Simon Sainsbury Keeper of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum stands before you and says, “This is the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings department’s single best traveling exhibition, ever,” your pupils dilate and back straightens. At first you wonder if the familiar self-deprecating hyperbole of the British white male has suddenly lost itself to T-rump-braggadocio, until you enter the Chace Center Galleries of the RISD Museum and see what he means. There, at the entrance, is the first (of many) blindingly original juxtapositions selected by curator Isabel Seligman from The British Museum’s Print and Drawing collection to evoke the numerous ways “Drawing […] is the organ of the thoughts” (Roger de Piles said in 1708).

Michael Landy, Diagram for Break Down, 2000. Pen and ink on paper. Courtesy Artist and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2017).

Side by side hang two drawings so unalike in age (940 B.C.E.; 2000 CE); function (one, a diagram from The Book of the Dead of the religious official Nestanebetisheru’s heart as it is weighed against the feather of Maat, the other, a miraculously undead preparatory drawing by Michael Landy of the conveyor belt labyrinth used in the performance Break Down (2001), where he destroyed everything he ever owned)2; tone (one solemn and mechanical, the other light and informal); and material (ancient papyrus versus six sheets of lined notebook paper secured by aging, crackling cellophane tape), you assume the pairing is for pure contrast. But Seligman has chosen to compare the similarity of the artists’ hand, caught in the act of thinking: the scribe’s red draft lines suggest his attention to the necessary modifications to make sure the balance of the scale is just right; in the same way, we see Landy thinking through the exact timing and placement of his various belongings as they are set to trundle across the conveyor belts and sorting stations towards landfill-oblivion, his teeny tiny notes like little mutterings: “Bridge conveyor. Won’t always have goods on them. Staggered,” or, “Electronic goods which need to be painstakenly apart.” Thematically, both are diagrams of death and ultimate destruction, thousands of years apart, where drawing is “a kind of thought process: a medium for thinking in.”3

Vasari famously described drawing as a form of cognition which he called disegno, but what makes Lines of Thought so dazzling is its considered selection and the nuance and thoroughness of Seligman’s own thinking, masterfully presented in her introduction to the Lines of Thought catalogue which, like the exhibition, is divided into six sections: The “Thinking Medium”; The Likeness of Thought; Brainstorming; Enquiry and Experiment; Insight and Association; and Development and Decisions.

Although you don’t have to be Raphael working out the tilt of the virgin’s head (Studies for a Virgin and Child in her arms, c. 1506-7) or Dürer using the tip of his pen to contemplate the ultimate position of Adam’s hand (Studies for Adam and Eve, 1504) to realize drawing is a form of thinking. Like writing, drawing is the place where one tests out possibilities and discovers the known unknowns or engages in absent minded reflection such as when doodling while listening to a lecture. Delacroix takes it even further, exclaiming, “the man who re-reads his work and takes up his pen to make corrections is always, to some extent a different man from the one who wrote the first draft.” 4

Michael Landy, Diagram for Break Down, 2000. Pen and ink on paper. Courtesy Artist and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2017).

But Isabel Seligman’s selection—seventy from god knows how many thousands of drawings in the British Museum’s collection—is nothing but revelatory, and I dare you not to quake and tear up as you stick your nose as close as you can to Michelangelo’s Studies for the Last Judgement (1534) in black chalk. Yes, it’s always moving and a bit trippy to contemplate how close one is to the hand of the artist—especially the great long dead masters—when looking at original drawings but prodded by Seligman to imagine Michelangelo in the act of thinking, took me to a whole other level as my eyes bored into the fine lines brushed with chalk-breath and the dark storm of burly fomenting bodies, shimmered with the solid yet light heft of his hand. One also gets to see that Michelangelo took out one idea, an angel strangling a doomed soul, an image Seligman suggests might have been too violent for the Papel chapel. Across the room, in a juxtaposition William Kentridge surely never imagined is his Arc/Procession, 9, 1989 next to Michelangelo’s A nude seated figure, ca. 1508-12. It is a comparison that makes little sense at first—a crowd formed as an arch versus the placement of a seated figure. But we see that in both drawings the artists are thinking through the shifting of bodies in space-time. Kentridge’s crowd is teeming with his famous erasures that build and collapse into proximities of procession, while Michelangelo portrays the unresolved possibilities of the seating of the figure, not the finished figure itself. It is the ability of the charcoal to retain the trace, to record the artist’s decision-making process, which links them. “You can change it as quickly as you can think,” Kentridge said of working with charcoal in 2006, “It became a way of thinking rather than a physical medium for me.”5

But the Kentridge-Michelangelo is just one of a number of inspired connections: A Female nude, c. 1900-07, by Rodin in graphite with watercolor (one of ten thousand he made), so spare and embodied, its line rivals Matisse’s legendary ease and motion. But the wonder intensifies as this quick gouache study is placed next to Jacopo Tintoretto’s notational A Nude Flying Man, ca. 1560-90, where “…[P]erpendicular marks…act like contour lines, illustrating the figures volume and extreme foreshortening,” after which one is greeted bizarrely yet somehow appropriately by Georg Baselitz’s lumpy strolling charcoal animal creature of Untitled, 1965.

Or singular instances: Claude Heath’s spindly, spirling Drawing (Head) 168B, 1995, which seems more like a still from Spirograph than a record of the artist attempting to draw his brother’s head by using his hands to feel the plaster cast in front of him. Or, Tracy Emin’s, stark, headless, feetless, one armed line drawing, featuring a line that rises from the reproductive organs to become an angry cloud of lines across her chest where her heart and lungs should be called Transfer of Energy, 1990—a response to an abortion. Or, Peter Doig, Dragnet, 1990, where schematic brown and red chalk lines reminiscent of a mirage memory, in his own words, “repeated and quoted like ‘Chinese Whispers’” turns out to be his response to a still from the 1980 film Friday the 13th.

* * *

For me, drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out—the first thing that I discover is that I do not know.

Bridget Riley

The diversity and intensity of the works on display is no doubt due to the exhibition’s unusual origins—Bridget Riley’s apprehension that today’s artists are not sufficiently knowledgeable of, and proficient in, the process of drawing. Hugo Chapman recounts a walk-through with Riley in 2005 of an exhibition of Michelangelo drawings he curated where Riley “opened my eyes to plays of rhythm in shape, contour and interval of blank space created by untouched paper in his studies I had hitherto apprehended only dimly.” Furthermore, “I, like most of the audience I suspect, had never thought of a 300-year-old Renaissance study as a reservoir of ideas that could be tapped by successive generations of artists, irrespective of whether their work is abstract or figurative.”

* * *

Thank goodness for Riley! And for Chapman’s enthusiastic collaboration with the Bridget Riley Foundation, which sponsored two years of workshops with over 500 students held in the Study Room of the British Museum under the curatorial eye of Isabel Seligman and part-time project officer Sarah Jaffray.6 Together, they oversaw the workshops, paying attention to the specific drawings that captured the artists’ attention. They also asked students to fill out feedback forms. In other words, the intelligence of Lines of Thought is not only a product of a keen curatorial imagination but the very labor and interaction of working artists (and not just painters and draughtsman, but photographers, film-makers, and performance students). It is perfect for the RISD Museum which from its founding has always been an active laboratory for RISD students. And so, to maintain the notion of drawing as a doing medium, there is a live drawing studio set up outside the exhibition’s entrance called Open Line, with daily prompts and demonstrations, where everyone from students to visitors who have never drawn can ruminate, caring little whether or how, in Virginia Woolf’s words, their drawings become works of art.

Ultimately, Lines of Thought is an achievement of such intelligent curatorial care and sensitivity—of thinking itself—that we folks who view art can only be happy for the RISD Museum but sad for the rest of you if you can’t make it to Providence by January 2018 to see the exhibition, since the RISD Museum is the last stop of a journey that began in 2016, after which, as Chapman reminded us, many of these drawings will return to their drawers not to be seen again for who knows how long.

Notes

  1. Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, 1925-30, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNellie (London: Hogarth Press, 1980), 102. Quoted by Isabel Seligman, “Introduction,” Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), 13.
  2. Landy gave it to someone before the performance. As Hugo Chapman said, the survival of these taped together pieces of notebook paper most likely make it many times more valuable than the Egyptian papyrus.
  3. Isabel Seligman, “Introduction,” Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), 10.
  4. Seligman, 28
  5. William Kentridge, interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/william-kentridge-arc-procession-9/QwGnfN2546Isnw?hl=en accessed October 25, 2017.
  6. The number of participants is now over a thousand.

Contributor

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.

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