Nowhere in the unwieldy title, brief catalogue essays or even the press releases for “Master European Drawings From the Collection of the National Gallery of Ireland” will you find the dreaded word treasures.
Chalk it up to Irish restraint and sober scholarship, not to a lack of aesthetic virtuosity or delectation in the exhibition, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to June 23.
No myth-encrusted entourage of glittering objects, slickly packaged and promoted straight to the box office, “Master Drawings” is nonetheless a show of treasures--of a distinctly understated variety.
The presentation, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, gently trumpets a little-known collection (of about 4,500 watercolors and drawings) while at the same time showcasing European draftsmanship from the Renaissance to 1925.
People who prefer delicate blushes of watercolor and finely limned contours to gold and jewels can count on finding subtle joys in 82 drawings and watercolors by 72 artists from nine countries (including American expatriates John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler). They can also count on seeing the show in relative solitude.
Like most drawing exhibitions, this one is an intimate affair that invites nose-to-glass examination by attuned viewers. Without it, you won’t absorb the cross-hatched intensity of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s moody “Portrait of Jan Burden,” the sculptural structure of Antoine Watteau’s “Church, Fortress and Rustic Buildings in a Landscape,” the bloody horror of Jacob van der Ulft’s depictions of Irish religious persecutions or the ghoulish wit of Adriaen van Ostade’s “Leg Operation,” performed by a barber on a hapless peasant.
As befits the aura of intimacy, each work demands its own time for the artist to tell its story. There’s Jean-Baptiste Huet’s one about an 18th-Century French woman “educating” her dog with an audience of animals in a rustic clearing; there’s Van der Ulft’s questionable account of a Muscovite delegation parading into his Dutch hometown, Gorinchem; there’s Whistler’s mysterious tale of “Piccadilly in a Fog,” pierced by pinpoints of light and intensified by dark puffs of people, and there’s Thomas Rowlandson’s waggish view of an elopement on the banks of the Thames.
Works that don’t lend themselves to narrative interpretation often turn out pockets of information about life styles, fashions and values. Charles Joseph Natoire’s drawing of a baroque fountain with dolphins, possibly in Rome, recalls a time of patronage that brought mythical forces of nature to urban gathering places in commissioned scupture. Genre scenes abound, but their comfort is jostled by records of sailing adventures and the recurring threat of war. For every sweet flower and dignified cow, there’s a note of unrest, change or conflict.
No survey is served up by “Master Drawings” and no clearcut theme emerges; the lessons to be learned are general ones, related to art’s reflection of its time and the essential place of drawing. The images tend to blend into a variegated mosaic, as complex as the historical, geographical and stylistic scope of the exhibition. It would be too much to assimilate if it didn’t become a backdrop for real people, set forth in astonishing drawings of faces.
Most of them cluster along one wall, providing a human focus that immediately gets down to particulars. Most striking is a 15th-Century “Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga, 4th Marquis of Mantua,” attributed to Andrea Mantegna. Cropped and worked as elaborately as a tapestry, it is the only drawing whose physical presence makes you snap to attention and take a step backward in deference before drawing close to inspect its modeled volumes and realistic details.
“Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s “Profile of a Young Man” is a solid model of Renaissance containment, while another early Italian work, Lorenzo di Credi’s “Study of a Girl’s Head” is a wispy idealization of feminine grace and fragility, enclosed in a circle.
Later faces range from Rossetti’s “Portrait of Jane Burden” idealizes a celebrated Pre-Raphaelite beauty who became William Morris’ wife. According to the catalogue, Rossetti posed her as a study for Queen Guinevere, intended for projected (but never completed) murals in Oxford illustrating the Morte d’Arthur legend. This extraordinarily elegant drawing, in pencil, pen and ink with watercolor is a curious mixture of modern stylization and the Pre-Raphaelites’ longing for Renaissance purity.
The most modern portrait is Augustus John’s energetic drawing of James Joyce, who comes off as a high-strung sort who wouldn’t sit still for an artist. Apparently he did, for a series of portrait drawings to illustrate a book of his writings, but he became dissatisfied with John’s treatment of his chin (a sensitive point for Joyce) and with the artist’s spare, linear style which escaped Joyce’s failing eyesight.