THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Tom Mullaney
For more than two centuries, from the early 19th through the 20th century postwar era, anyone who deigned to call themselves an “Artist” had to be versed in drawing and printmaking. When the epicenter of the modern art world moved from Paris to New York following World War II, drawing lost its equal standing with painting in the face of Abstract Expressionism’s more muscular, grand gestures.
Drawing and prints were once essential parts of an artist’s toolkit. Artists turned to drawing to fashion preparatory studies before putting paint to canvas or as finished compositions in their own right. Drawing was the artists’ common thread and a practice they regularly employed in their search for new, innovative ideas.
It is uncommon to currently find museums mounting drawing exhibitions (unless the artists are named Leonardo or Michelangelo). Even the Art Institute, which houses a world-class prints and drawings collection, has been reluctant, in recent memory, to showcase this prized archive with a full-scale exhibition.
Which is why it’s refreshing and commendable that the Milwaukee Art Museum has mounted a revelatory exhibit of 150 works from both the holdings of two noted Chicago collectors. The show arrives in Milwaukee after a successful run at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, England and will be on display through January 28, 2018.
Jacques-Louis David, Vieillard et Jeune Femme
It traces the evolutionary development of modernism in France. In the early 19th Century, the practice of art and who might be considered an artist were rigidly controlled by the French Academy which emphasized slavish devotion to classical themes drawn mainly from ancient history and mythology.
Artists increasingly chafed at such restrictions and sought the freedom to find their own styles. This movement began in the 1830s and 1840s by such pre-Impressionist artists as Millet, Pissarro and Manet. These precursors gave way in 1874 to the Impressionists led by Monet, Cezanne and Renoir to be followed by Van Gogh, Gauguin and the Post-Impressionists.
Exhibition curator, Britany Salsbury, has mounted a very intelligent exhibition aided by the quality of the drawings at her disposal. She has arranged the works in a chronological survey encompassing seven art movements throughout 11 of the museum’s galleries with informative wall texts that begin with “Academy and Avant-Garde” followed by “Half a Century of Revolution,” and several galleries beyond with “Moving Into the Modern World,” closing with “Wild Beasts (Fauvists) and Cubists” and the 1912 show of Cubist art known as “The Golden Section.”
Simply seeing the works on the walls, one might get the mistaken impression that art’s movement from Classicism to Cubism was a seamless and serene progression. Not so. The 19th and early 20th century period witnessed full-scale revolt by French artists for artistic freedom that led to the birth of modernism.
The primary collection is fully capable of supporting such a wide-ranging show. It is comprehensive in scope with no historical or artistic gaps in the coverage extending from such lesser-known figures as Louis-Leopold Boilly and Theodore Chasseriau to more textbook figures as Delacroix, Honore Daumier, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and through modern art giants like Manet, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin and Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, Female Nude
Among the many highlights in the exhibition are Jacques-Louis David’s drawing, An Old Man and a Young Woman, Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Guchet, his only known etching, Jean Metzinger’s Landscape and Picasso’s Female Nude.
Yet, rather than focus on the art stars, the show’s purpose is to draw attention to the great technique and versatility of so many artists. I found one of the exhibition’s pleasures in discovering, and reveling at, stunning work by lesser-known figures such as Raoul Dufy (Sainte Adresse Seen Through the Trees), Albert Gleizes (The City and The River) and Jacques Villon (L’Equilibriste—The Tightrope Walker).
A few more weeks remain to catch this richly rewarding show of a now less familiar genre, once an indispensable part of an artist’s vocabulary. While paint is the fuel that propels the contemporary art world, this exhibition claims that we are foolishly overlooking an equally rich heritage of pen and ink.
Tom Mullaney is the New Art Examiner’s Senior Editor. He has written on art for The New York Times, Chicago Magazine and Crain’s Chicago Business.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait du Dr. Gachet
Jean Metzinger, Landscape