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|My Eye: A Bellyful of Great Drawings from Vienna's Albertina
by Thomas Hoving
|The Albertina in Vienna is the home to one of the world's finest collections of drawings. Begun by Albert, Duke of Saxe-Teschen -- not the fabulous British royal collector -- by 1822 his holdings included something like 14,000 European drawings and more than 200,000 prints dating from the 15th to the early 19th centuries. The institution has been adding to its treasures yearly, concentrating on Austrian and German works. Now the total is nearly 60,000 drawings and a million prints.
Forty-five drawings have been sent to the Frick Collection, where they'll be on view through June 16. And if you want to get your esthetic juices surging, don't miss this show.
The first time I visited the famed Albertina was during the dark era of 1956, when the city was painfully recovering from the "Third Man" era of the Soviet occupation. Two events made the city less gloomy. One was the joy of thousands of liberated Hungarians sweeping into town, escaping the Russian tanks at the end of the short-lived Hungarian revolution. The other was a special show of the Albertina's treasures.
Dürer and Leonardo
I walked reverently towards Albrecht Dürer's watercolor of 1512, Wing of a Blue Roller, which glowed 50 feet away like some Aurora Borealis. I stood in awe before that magnificent explosion of violent blues and reds, only to feel curiously let down after the initial blast. I had the same disquieting feeling in front of another Dürer. I was more and more puzzled by their softness. At last I confronted a guard and asked if by any crazy chance these watercolors were well, not real, and he grunted that no original drawings were ever publicly exhibited at the Albertina.
When the other day I entered the downstairs galleries at the Frick Collection to devour the treasures of the Albertina, the first work on the wall, Leonardo's drawing of an Apostle, in silver point and pen on light green paper, seemed ironed flat onto the mounting paper and I thought, "Oh, no! Not the old fakeroo!" But a fierce examination calmed me down. This is original and it is fantastic.
You might not want to meet this glowering apostle -- probably Peter -- so densely rendered by Leonardo with his typical overbearing sense of observation. Those impeccably made eyes are burning through the paper. Only Leonardo would have bothered to record the three or four curled hairs on the bald pate and make them somehow cosmic. And the drama! Peter is given to us at the precise moment that he denies Christ for the third time. His knitted brow is a magnificent study of fear, anger and guilt.
Next to the Leonardo, there's Michelangelo's study of a seated male nude and two studies of arms, in ruddle (red chalk) and opaque white, which is about the most perfect symbol of "terribiltá," his amazing ability to depict limitless power within a human gentleness. If there ever was a drawing that looked like a huge hunk of stone, this is it. Just having this one alone in New York for a few months would have been sufficient.
The Albertina folks have sent over a host of Albrecht Dürers -- no less than seven. Tops is his miraculously rendered Study of an Old Man's Head of 1521, done with brush in ink and opaque white, that gives the Leonardo a run for its money. I have a suspicion that the two geniuses met when Dürer visited Italy for the second time and that this work may be in some way "in homage" to Leonardo.
Other drawings that you dare not miss are:
The Self-Portrait by the master draftsman and engraver of the 16th-17th centuries, Hendrick Golztius, in black and colored chalks and a watercolor wash. This is a luminescent and penetrating image of a man brimming with intelligence, piety, self-confidence and a puckish sense of humor.
Impressionism, by going out of doors, wasn't the only school of art to capture environment and light, the joy of a fall day or the smell of verdant trees and grasses. For an intensely observant and satisfying view of real nature, take a long look at the ink drawing of a Tree-lined Country Lane by the Dutch artist Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom (1591-1661). It doesn't matter that it was folded over for too long a time halfway down, for the punch is there.
The most moving is the romantic and looming landscape, Cottages before a Stormy Sky. The blunt, perfect and confident strokes of the master's pen are splendidly revealed here, along with his genius in creating light and stormy effects out of mere ink and the whiteness of his paper. This is a quintessential Rembrandt in super condition.
I happen to be very fond of the interiors by the 17th-century Dutchman Pieter Jansz Saenredam, and particularly of one large, impeccable oil in Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. The drawing from the Albertina, Interior of St Laurence's Church in Alkmaar of 1661, shows off his ability to capture a complex environment with amazing simplicity and strength. You'll revel in the details of brass chandelier, altar, architectural embellishment and the tiny coats of arms suspended airily throughout.
The 19th-century selections are excellent. One striking view of the Matterhorn by Thomas Ender is a paragon of the dreamy Alpine view.
The Albertina thankfully collected mounds of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, especially under the directorship of the gifted Otto Benesch, who struggled valiantly through the grim years immediately after the fall of the Reich.
This show has superior works by Klimt and Schiele. From the former is a surreal, moody, magical Woman (or witch, for who knows with Klimt), and from the latter is a breathtakingly beautiful and graceful portrait of Schiele's lovely wife, Edith. These are unfortunately not illustrated in what is said by the Frick bookshop to be the show catalogue. It isn't; it's a $97 History of the Albertina, which is being sold under slightly false pretenses.
The 20th-century and contemporary drawings chosen for this offering aren't memorable, but who cares? All a blockbuster needs to be a whammo are two or three grandiose works and this Albertina show has half a dozen and more.
"Michelangelo to Picasso: Master Drawings from the Collection of the Albertina, Vienna," Apr. 18-June 18, 2000, at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
THOMAS HOVING is editorial director of Artnet.com.