I was recently in Evora, Portugal, busy drawing those amazing trees, cork oaks. I spent so much time out drawing in the ever-shifting light and space that I needed a break, and of course, happenstance intervened that one of the exhibitions I saw in Evora was a drawing exhibition curated by Fátima Lambert, Studiolo XXI, at the Centro de Arte e Cultura da Fundação Eugénio de Almeida. It was thus an interesting “feed-back” situation where I was reading what was said about the act of drawing, my main activity for the previous week.
A large exhibition, and rather uneven to my eye, it was nonetheless extremely interesting. First of all, “studiolo” - I quote the definition from the National Gallery in London: “A 'studiolo' (from the Italian, meaning little studio) is a small room, often lavishly decorated, dedicated to reading, studying and writing. It is generally of a relatively private character.” These rooms were especially favoured in the 15th century.
The exhibition’s title was somewhat odd, to me, given the many large rooms devoted to this show. However, some of the comments made about the drawings in each room were thought-provoking. Such as:
“Drawing forges ways of seeing, beyond that which is created on the surface. It is not enough to read the meanings and ideas implicit in a literal register of drawing - in morphological and iconographic terms - that are derived from lines. Drawing as conceptual material… constitutes the broadest archive of truths, fictions, idealisations and absences.” As I re-read this statement, the images of two Rembrandt drawings come to mind, currently on display at the Ackland Art Museum, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Another quote from the Studiolo XXI’s texts: “Drawing requires refinement and generates ideas: it is essence requiring action… and fundamentally nomadic in nature. It is a first thought, in the moment and of the moment, enduring and metamorphosing through a local process of precise creation. Its aims and ends are to be found within drawing itself.” Not all drawing falls into this category for even the Renaissance masters also draw “finished drawings” that stand as works of art in of themselves. Nonetheless, drawing has always been an act of exploration. Peter Paul Rubens’ primi pensieri (first thoughts) were a way initially to work out what eventually would be a big painted commission, such as this one, his first ideas for an altarpiece commissioned by the Church of the Augustinian Fathers in Antwerp, now in the city's Royal Museum of Fine Arts.
By contrast, this is a finished, stand-alone drawing, also done by Rubens: a portrait of Nicolas Trigault, a Flemish Jesuit missionary to China, which Rubens did when Trigault visited Antwerp to raise funds and recruit new missionaries.
Looking at any drawing, one remembers that by definition, drawing involves lines. The Studiolo XXI text comments on this aspect of drawings: “How are lines generated? What do they mean? Lines are found everywhere, not only in drawing…. Lines may be presented as singular forms, woven into threads and disparate branches on the basis of a matrix, and they always occur in batches. They are either rhizomatic, providing webs, networks and grids that intertwine, or they may be discontinuous, following a path which is either sinuous or direct, as traces and/or scratchings. When lines become too entangled, guided by interior forces, (our sensibilities), they become scrawls, scribbles and squiggles. They differ from each other, for there are elegant lines and stoic lines, and others which are temperamental and unyielding.”
The allusion to webs and networks in the text immediately rang a bell with me. I had just completed a big silverpoint drawing in which I used thread as well as silver lines.
There were many more interesting texts about drawing in this big exhibition, Studiolo XXI, so let me quote another: “According to Almada Negreiros (an important 20th century Portuguese painter and draughtsman), drawing is the primordial language, marking the first stage in Man’s relationship with and representation of reality and the imagination, while the representation of what is real can never be divorced from the imperfection of subjectivity Thus each artist creates and expresses an individual/personal lexicon of forms and notes that express their aims and perceptions.”
When it comes to drawing being the primordial language, in the literal sense, it is old, very old, in mankind’s history.
As one gazes at a drawing, even in reproduction, such as this astonishing early drawing above, there are other considerations that come into play for drawing is only one side of the equation. The other side concerns the viewer. Again, the Studiolo exhibition has interesting thoughts on this: “The physical approach to drawing, providing the best way of observing a piece, furnishes an intimate dimension shared by those who produced it. Scale and technique, and its iconographic (and semantic) content, determine placement, posture, and all that the body requires to look closely in detail, or in detachment and perspective. Drawing thus implies an action on the part of the observer, who becomes the protagonist in an act of singularised knowledge. In this way, the act of viewing a drawing is traced by the movement of the observer’s body in a unique act of visual perception.” Seeing a drawing which takes up a whole wall is a very different experience from looking at a very small and intimate drawing.
A final quote: “In contemporary times, the purposes of drawing have functions which are non-literal. However, they are found … throughout history, the starting point for the artistic production of the here and now. In this sense, contemporary art incorporates and projects history, derives from it and assigns it new ideas and meanings.”
William Kentridge comes to mind as a wonderful heir to earlier draughtsmen.
I must admit, every time I pick up a metalpoint stylus to draw, I am conscious of that long, long artistic heritage behind us, and, at the same time, hoping to say something that might in some way be relevant to today’s world and make a viewer see things differently and think about something in a fresh manner. No doubt, just what that oh-so-distant Indonesian artist wanted to achieve as he worked on his cave wall in Borneo.