In London, a wealth of old master drawings

FOR anyone with a taste for old master drawings, London is the place to be just now. The British Museum Prints and Drawings department is staging another of its excellent periodical selections (to Aug. 17) from its holdings. This time: ``Florentine Drawings of the Sixteenth Century.''

And at the Queen's Gallery (to February next year) can be seen a selection of ``Master Drawings in the Royal Collection'' spanning the centuries from the early Italian Renaissance to the present.

Both exhibitions sport fine catalogs that add greatly to an understanding of the function of the individual drawings. But it is also rewarding to take a less academic approach and simply to enjoy the feeling that so many of these works in chalk or ink give of closeness to the artists' springs of invention and intention.

Dominating in both exhibitions are the drawings of that trio of unsurpassable draftsmen of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, stars of the brief period of achievement and classicism known as the ``High Renaissance'': Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. They initiate the period reviewed at the British Museum. While their stays in Florence were relatively short, they influenced virtually every Florentine artist in the least able to assimilate their originality.

At the Queen's Gallery they are prominent because the royal collection is so richly endowed with exceptional drawings by them. Here is Raphael's sculptural but intangible ``Study for the Figure of Poetry,'' in black chalk over stylus; Leonardo's metal point studies of arms and hands, those long, polished fingers so elegantly and scrupulously observed; Michelangelo's forceful, apocalyptic rendering (one of many he made on this subject), ``The Resurrection.'' These works take drawing into a dimension scarcely contemplated by other artists.

The British Museum exhibition, which is much narrower in scope, presents the three masters in greater detail and range. Here is Michelangelo using incisive pen-and-ink hatching to describe the expressive musculature of the human figure; it's as if he were using the chisel on marble. This conception of drawing-as-sculpting had a productive influence on Raphael when he arrived in Florence eager to outgrow his Umbrian-born limitations. We see him drawing Michelangelo's giant sculpture of ``David,'' just erected in the city. But instead of being overwhelmed by it, Raphael absorbs its grandeur and invests it with his own sense of proportion and fresh linear vitality. The debt he owed to Leonardo is also illustrated in a sheet of brown ink studies for a ``Virgin and Child.'' They are Leonardo-like exploratory contemplations, the mother and baby emerging from a melee of swift linear arcs. But Raphael's drawings, whether sketchy or finished, rarely give the impression that they were ends in themselves. For Leonardo, on the other hand, the process of generating ideas by drawing was in itself absorbing. His studies of a child with a cat (is it tender love or a wrestling match?) illustrate this delightfully.

At the British Museum, the 16th century is shown proceeding from the High Renaissance to ``Post-Renaissance Classicism,'' through various stages of ``Mannerism,'' to conclude with certain moves towards naturalism on the one hand and the Baroque on the other.

Again, you don't have to be embroiled by such historical definitions to enjoy the quality of the drawings themselves. The red chalk drawings of Andrea del Sarto, for instance, are so masterful that to know his precise relationship to other artists of the period adds nothing to a direct enjoyment of their quality. The firm, expressive contours of his figures are extraordinarily satisfying.

Drawings from Michelangelo's later Florentine period illustrate many facets of his art, including his imagination as a designer of architecture and his dedication to the idea of the perfectly finished ``presentation'' drawing.

His imitators and followers as shown in this exhibition rarely even reached up to his boot tops. Though without this giant in the background, some of the more impressive achievements of such mannerists as Pontormo or Rossowould have been inconceivable. And both Salviati's elevated allegorical figures in pen-and-wash and his highly finished studio life-drawings in chalk owe much to him.

The Queen's Gallery exhibition is less specialized. Its variety is a pleasure. You pick out your favorites: Barocci's sweet ``Head of a Virgin,'' perhaps, or Tintoretto's ``Standing man seen from behind,'' pure quicksilver; D"urer's ``Greyhound,'' memorable for its wiry realism or Holbein's portraits for their immediate authenticity. Annibale Carracci is represented in part by a youthful self-portrait, full of rough texture and strong light-and-shade. This is in striking contrast to Bernini's eye-fixing self-portrait as an old man, all brittle vitality.

British royal taste in drawings cannot, unfortunately, be said to have improved during the 19th and 20th centuries. There are moments of interest for royal-family enthusiasts: Evidence of Queen Victoria's skills with chalks in a head-and-shoulders drawing of two children modeled on a Landseer drawing, for instance. There is a solitary, sultry ``female head'' by Burne-Jones, though the Pre-Raphaelites were no favorites of Victoria; this drawing was purchased in the next reign.

The 20th century drawings are safe indeed -- even a portrait of a young girl by Stanley Spencer, though drawn with his exacting control, shows nothing of the unsparing realism of his boldest portraits. One interesting artist collected by today's royals is Feliks Topolski. His drawings of Ivy Compton Burnett, Herbert Read, and Edith Sitwell (who liked Topolski's work, but disliked his protrait of her) show him probing the physiognomies of these literary figures as if his black chalk were a tool to explore the wrinkly, creviced bark of ancient English oak trees.

But where in the last two centuries can be seen anything remotely like the sensitive passion for art of Charles I or of the early Georges?

Even the selection of 18th century drawings lacks the distinction of those from the 17th and earlier . . . though it does include a funny ``Back view of two ladies'' by Paul Sandby. It is beautifully drawn, in the spirit of French painter Watteau. But the comic observation of the inelegant -- and the surprise effect of a gust of wind on the fashionable dress -- is distinctly and mischievously English.

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