Drawing -- a tough field where the few great artists are like mimes

If anything could tempt me from the straight and narrow it would be a Michelangelo drawing -- or one by Rembrandt or Durer. Coming upon even one drawing by any of these masters is always a special occasion for me, and to see clusters of them together in a show can set me up for days.

Small wonder than that I made it a point to be precisely on time at the door of the Pierpont Morgan Library here for the opening of its new exhibition, "European Drawings, 1375- 1825." And small wonder also that I spent as delightful a time viewing this assemblage of drawings as I have in quite a while.

For one thing, this exhibition includes not only first-rate drawings by my above-mentioned trio of artists, but also excellent examples of the drawing skills of a large number of the major European artists from Signorelli and Botticelli to Ingres and Constable (two dramatic omissions being Leonardo and Holbein).

All the major schools of European draftsmanship are included, with special emphasis on the Italian, French, and Northern schools. There are particularly fine examples from the Italian Renaissance (such as Raphael's "The Meeting of Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal"), the Netherlandish School of the 17th century (Rubens, Van Dyck), the Venetian School of the 18th (Tiepolo, Piranesi), the French School of the 17th and 18th (Callot, Poussin, Lorrain, Watteau), and the English School of the 18th and early 19th.

To be exact, there are 137 drawings and 11 autograph letters on view. And all are drawn from the collection of the Morgan Library. But my heart went out most particularly to four tiny black chalk sketches by Michelangelo. Each depicts a slight variant on the theme of "David Slaying Goliath," averages roughly 2 1/4 inches by 3 1/4 inches in size, and is matted with its companions within one frame. Each is also a miniature masterpiece, and the four together make as moving a grouping of pure drawings as we are likely to find anywhere.

Not that they look like much at first glance, since they give only the roughest indications of Michelangelo's intentions, and are only the barest notations put down to help him visualize the formal implications of his theme. (One, as a matter of fact, is hardly more than a shorthand scribble.) And yet they encapsulate the essence of Michelangelo's genius and greatness: his awesome combination of authenticity, formal imagination, and emotional depth -- to say nothing of his ability to sum up a centuries-old tradition and to point the way to some of what was to follow.

Durer, on the other hand, is represented by four very detailed drawings including the 1504 ink and wash study for his famous engraving of "Adam and Eve, " and his brilliant 1506 study of a "Kneeling Donor." This is drawing at the opposite end of the scale from Michelangelo's rapid sketches, for where Durer's precise renderings represent studious probings into form, structure, and detail, Michelangelo's reflect intense emotion seeking external form.

Rembrandt, the third of my trio of favorites, has five works on view, including "Three Studies for a Descent From the Cross," "Two Mummers on Horseback," and "Woman Carrying a Child Downstairs." Here again we see drawing at its very best: clear, concise, and stripped of all frills and frippery.

While we have had no dearth of great painters, the number of artists in the West who have achieved truly first-rate status for their drawings has been low -- possibly a dozen at most. I don't know why that is, except that drawing is a more condensed and codified art than painting usually is and must rely on a highly abbreviated formal vocabulary to achieve its ends -- something not completely satisfying to most painters.

In some respects a great master of drawing is like a great master of mime: They must accomplish what a painter or actor does, but without, in the one instance, color, and, in the other, speech.

Rembrandt is the perfect example of the painter whose drawings exist totally independently from his paintings. (And Renoir is the perfect example of the artist whose drawings cry out to be finished in color.) Few Western artists achieve this degree of independence in their drawings, which isn't to say that their drawings aren't superb in their own way, only that they lack the final impact of what these artists could do with paint on canvas.

In this respect I've always found the drawings of Watteau -- delicate, even exquisite caresses of black and colored chalks on tinted paper -- quite exceptional. They seem perfectly poised between drawing and painting. And his "Two Studies of a Little Girl" included in this show is no exception.

My list of this exhibition's most remarkable drawings is much longer than space will permit, and so I will have to content myself with listing a few. Among them is Bruegel's magnificent panoramic "Mountain Landscape" (which was virtually unknown until 1952), Filippino Lippi's "Standing Youth with Sword and Kneeling Youth with Staff," Rubens' "Seated Nude Youth," Fragonard's "Shepherd Boy and Sheep on a Sunny Hillside," Blake's "When the Morning Stars Sang Together," the two Ingres portrait drawings, and, last but by no means least, Samuel Palmer's ravishing watercolor "Pear Tree in a Walled Garden." The last, to put it simply, is one of the most beautiful watercolors I have ever seen.

And I should also mention Casper David Friedrich's lovely study, "Moonlit Landscape."

All in all this is an exhibition that I recommend without any hesitation whatever. It will remain open to the public through May 3.

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