Drawings Reach Grand Heights

Getty Museum and the Met exchange works

THE J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., has long been considered the best-endowed museum in the world; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the finest in this country. In a bicoastal exchange, the two titans have collaborated on two beautiful drawing exhibitions simultaneously on view at the New York and Malibu museums.

The first master drawing exhibition the Getty has ever hosted from another museum, "Drawings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York," features 25 sheets from the Met's impressive trove of this 18th-century Italian painter and draftsman.

In a wonderful artistic quid pro quo, the Met is concurrently hosting a sample of over 100 drawings selected from the Getty's impressive holdings of 15th- to 19th-century drawings titled, "Drawings from the J. Paul Getty Museum."

Guided by the fine eye of George Goldner, Getty's curator of drawings, the show is on view at the Met through Aug. 8, and then travels to the Royal Academy in London, where it will be shown Oct. 29 to Jan. 23, 1994.

In the last 10 years, the Getty has built a 400-piece Old Master drawing collection so strong that there has seemed no need for the Getty to host touring exhibitions of other drawings.

In an interview from his part-time home in New York, Dr. Goldner noted, "We'd been thinking about the Getty drawings traveling to New York for some time.

"The purpose of the show was to present New York and Europe with what we've been able to accomplish to date. In the process, the idea of an exchange developed, and it worked out very fluidly, very comfortably," he says.

Tiepolo was a logical choice for such a collaboration as the Met's holdings of drawings by this master are among the most comprehensive in the United States. Active from roughly 1700 to 1770, Tiepolo is regarded by art historians as one of the finest Italian painters and draftsmen of the 18th century.

Born in Venice, like the masters Giovanni Bellini and Titian, Tiepolo was a brilliant colorist and inherited the Venetian sensitivity to light and chromatic properties inspired by the fabled water and natural light of his native city.

What is especially remarkable is that Tiepolo achieved a sun-drenched luminosity and suggested subtle hue variations in drawings that are for the most part executed in only red or black chalk on blue paper or pen and ink highlighted with deftly applied brown wash.

The collection of 25 Met drawings on view at the Getty represents each one of Tiepolo's stylistic periods, from early religious subjects, such as the "Scenes of Martyrdom" (an especially large and polished work), to secular themes, such as a drawing of the goddess Venus entrusting a sleeping infant to the winged figure of Time.

BACK in New York, the exhibition of Getty holdings on view at the Met is larger in number and nicely divided over three rooms. Works from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries get the major thrust in the first exhibition space; 17th- and 18th-century works are shown in the second; and 19th-century drawings hang in the final room.

According to Goldner, the acquisition strategy of the Getty over the last decade has been to acquire the finest and rarest drawings available from Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. As the finer and rarer pieces tend to be the oldest ones, the Getty collection, as well as the Met show, is particularly strong in the earlier centuries.

There are several exquisite and unforgettable sketches of a child and a lamb by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as studies by Raphael for his famous "Disputa," executed in the 1500s.

Rembrandt is represented by drawings that tap into his versatility; "Woman With a Snake," rendered in velvety smooth contours and deep red chalk, is a shock when compared with the nervous line quality and flickering shadowed light in his better known paintings and etched works.

An atypically homespun scene by Rubens of a peasant threshing wheat is nothing like the robust nudes for which he is best known. But even in this small work, there is the sure, full shapes, the grandeur and sensuous plasticity of form that were the artist's trademark.

There are really too many exceptional drawings to pull out examples.

But a 1880s William Blake drawing in pencil and pen and ink of "Satan Exulting Over Eve" is a special treat, sublimely capturing all the fantasy and formal and narrative freedom we come to see in art of the modern era.

The lure and wonder of the range of drawing lies in the intimacy and spontaneity of the medium. This Getty-Met enterprise allows those unique qualities to shine through. The two shows add to our insights about each artist's range and mature painting concerns, while reminding us that drawings - whether perfectly finished modellos or quick studies executed in a few sure lines - stand as serious works of art in their own right.

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