Drawing is an act of great intimacy. The artist’s touch is direct and instant, with only a piece of chalk, or charcoal stump, or delicate brush separating the hand from the paper. It is as personal as handwriting.
Drawing is also one of the most eloquent and expressive forms of art. Although it is no longer thought to be the foundation of art as it once was, drawing can still engender deep and solitary reverie like no other art form.
Works on paper are also delicate, and over time exposure to light will cause them to fade or degrade. Therefore, exhibitions dedicated to drawing are not nearly as abundant as shows of sculpture and painting. A show of drawing is special and always worthy of seeing. The bite-size show of master drawings now at the Crocker – “Reuniting the Masters: European Drawings from West Coast Collections” – is no exception.
The exhibition, organized by Crocker curator William Breazeale, draws from regional museums and showcases the scope and richness of collecting on the West Coast. The artists are represented with two drawings each, installed side by side. Many of the works haven’t been together in years, some even in centuries, including drawings from the same sketchbook, project or portfolio. The show is a gift of generous institutional collaboration and research. It is an opportunity to contrast and compare a group of artists in moments of extraordinarily concentrated observation and skill.
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The work is arranged by region. First drawings to be encountered are from Italy and the Low Countries – Netherlands, Belgium, and delta regions of Western Europe. Fra Bartolommeo’s “Angel Playing a Lute” (undated) reveals drawing’s particular flexibility. The angel’s shifting face gives us a picture of Bartolommeo’s attentive thinking and his willingness to move lines and perspective mid-stream. Two charming pen-and-ink caricatures by Pier Leone Ghezzi exemplify art’s ability to poke fun at inflated egos and public pomp with a single image. “Doctor Fossambroni ”(circa 1729-30) shows the society doctor proudly adorned in lavish finery, unaware of a dog unceremoniously urinating on his shoe. Briskly delineated in crisp strokes of ink, and like the drawings of George Cruikshank, Honore Daumier and the artists of Charlie Hebdo, it is a fine example of the noble and sometimes dangerous art of political satire.
Two deftly drawn portraits of late 17th-century villages represent Flemish artist Adriaen Frans Boudewijns. “Winter Landscape” lures us down earthen roads into settlements of thatched roofed cottages and barren trees. With none of the mawkish sentimentality of Thomas Kinkaide’s village depictions, Boudewijns’s blue and brown ink drawings convey life as it was actually lived – in both its hardships and hearthside warmth.
Swiss-born landscape artist Adrian Zingg was trained in etching metal, and the fine, linear precision of “View of the Amselfall in Saxony” (1794) is testament to that training. It is one of the largest drawings in the show and is a dazzling spectacle of romanticized nature limned in pen and ink, brush and wash. Leaf by tiny leaf, Zingg leads the viewer into a woodland glade riven by a torrential, thrusting waterfall.
The drawings of German artist Adolph Menzel are an exciting discovery. His motto was “No day without a line drawn,” and the muscular authority and freshness of his work is evidence of that daily practice. Drawn 40 years apart, the earliest, “Artist’s Model, Seen in Back View” (1845), is a loose, confident construction of fabric and gesture. “Study of a Tree” (circa 1885-90) is a tender, searching chalk, graphite and stump drawing of a gnarled tree. Its close-up, confrontational placement is as contemporary as any drawing today.
Saving the most luscious for last, Francois Boucher’s “The Birth of Venus” and “Study of a Reclining Nude,” both 1732-35, are fluid, sensual figurative reveries. The roiling gestural crescendo of figures in “The Birth of Venus” and the humanity of the responsive line defining the nude translate Boucher’s empathy for drawing into a moving expression of life. This is as good as drawing gets.
In the bustle of the holidays, take time for a quiet encounter with some of art’s greatest riches.
Reuniting the Masters: European Drawings From West Coast Collections
When: Through Feb. 5, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; closed Christmas and New Year’s Day
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Cost: $5-$10, free for members and children 6 and under; Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”
Information: 916-808-7000; crockerartmuseum.org