"Leonardo Da Vinci: Master Draftsman," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's landmark exhibition, presents drawings by the artist, his teacher and followers, offering a thorough reassessment of this Renaissance master. It visually presents the twists and turns of a genius in the making and in full command of his powers. It is a compelling installation from beginning to end -- and one not likely to be seen again in our lifetimes.
With more than 100 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) from his roughly 4,000 extant sheets, the exhibition functions as a retrospective. After all, this famous polymath rarely completed commissions in other media, leaving no known sculpture and only 15 paintings (many unfinished or completed by other artists). Even The Last Supper is a ghost of itself due to his technical experiments. But the full range of Leonardo's ever-curious mind erupts in these drawings.
The stage is set with a mini-exhibition of the drawings of Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo's teacher. Few of his drawings survive, and this room holds plenty of interest to Verrocchio specialists as well as Leonardo lovers. It's an excellent way to point out that the sensitive use of sfumato, or smoke drawing, the rendering of shadows without strokes but with blurs of charcoal or chalk began with the older master, not Leonardo.
A measured survey drawing of the proportions of a horse by Verrocchio seems to have led to Leonardo's measured drawings, while Verrocchio's drawing from different points of view may have contributed to Leonardo's inspired and seemingly relentless vision and revision of drawings and his "brain-storming technique."
Certainly the overwhelming feeling of "Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman" is one of constant investigation. The material world was not just explored but sacked by Leonardo's pen.
Perhaps, as co-curator and Leonardo scholar Carmen C. Bambach suggests, Leonardo's illegitimate birth and lack of education, resulting in knowing little of Latin that provided Renaissance Humanists with a common language, spurred his interest in direct experience of the world. With Verrocchio's training, he had tools which he applied with a vengeance. From his animal drawings, in which cats and horses abound, to human studies to scientific sketches dealing with engineering, physics, anatomy, botany and geology among other areas, Leonardo probed deeply.
One surprise is the number and popularity of his drawings of grotesquely featured people. Leonardo, reputed to be a handsome man throughout his life, analyzed the many forms of human nature, following deformed people of both sexes and portraying them with great dignity. He also encouraged students to sketch outstandingly lovely lips or eyes that could be blended into a more perfect whole. He also literally dissected bodies in trying to pry out all their innermost secrets
Leonardo's anxious pursuit of perfection may be one reason behind the surpassing beauty of so many of his finished drawings, like the Met's own Head of the Virgin...(ca.1508-12) and his Study for the Head of a Soldier in the "Battle of Anghiari" (ca.1504-5). It may also be the reason why he often disappointed even the most noble and patient of his patrons repeatedly.
The Vatican's unfinished Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, the only painting in the show, does seem to be entirely by Leonardo -- at least what there is of it. It wonderfully illustrates how he built up layers of paint from underdrawing.
That the Met is providing this show without additional cost to its usual pay-what-you-wish museum admission is admirable. Hopefully, the policy will encourage multiple visits. The show ends with a selection of drawings and pastels by Leonardo's Milanese followers. It's an exquisite show in itself.
Carmen C. Bambach, curator, and George R. Goldner, chairman, of the Metropolitan Museum's department of drawings and prints organized the exhibition. This is the show's only venue. It will be up through Mar. 30, 2003. (If the exhibition is crowded, visitors may be asked to wait before entering. A small show of contemporary abstract drawings and another of Klee drawings, both on the mezzanine, are great places to spend some time.)
The catalogue is available in hardback ($65) and paperback ($50). One other thing -- the Met has belatedly placed some magnifying glasses at the entrance to the show, which will come in handy for some of the more detailed drawings.
* * *
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was known as "the painter of dancers" in his own time, but only now is the breadth and depth of his involvement with dance and dancers becoming clear. "Degas and the Dance," now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a thrilling exhibition that takes the viewer deeply into the world of 19th century ballet. The show gathers together key works and an extraordinary amount of fresh material by Degas, spanning 50 years.
Considering that more than one half of Degas' oeuvre is devoted to dance, it seems odd that no similar exhaustive analysis of this kind has been attempted before. Paintings, bronzes, prints and, above all, drawings from 11 countries and 40 private collections offer revelation after revelation about Degas and his art. Set models, costume designs and photos put the works in perspective.
A famously private man and life-long bachelor, Degas knew that practice lay behind great art and that artistic transformation did not come easily. His own idol, Ingres, had advised "Make lots of lines." Degas did so with all the rigor, intensity and constancy of the young coryphes rehearsing new steps.
Degas could appreciate the grueling repetitive exercises of dancers, recording them again and again in works like Dancer Exercising at the Barre (ca. 1885). One drawing of a young dancer carries a notation about what she needed to do to execute the pose correctly! He was nothing, if not critical, both of the dancers and himself.
Degas knew personally at least 51 dancers. He also knew musicians and staff, allowing him to put in a good word for one dancer and give advice to others. The range of his portraits of dancers, one large section of the show, reveals his distance from some, his empathy for others. If his Seated Woman in a Yellow Dress (ca.1890) is, as suspected, a portrait of Mlle Chabot, then this luscious depiction of a less-than-perfectly-beautiful dancer seems quite adoring.
Degas was so frequent a visitor backstage that he was able to capture the dancers at their most unguarded moments. One of several important horizontal canvases devoted to classroom scenes, his The Dance Lesson (ca.1879), is a hawk-eyed study of gestures that includes an exhausted young dancer that is totally believable and sympathetic.
Equally sympathetic, yet with an appreciation of the unconscious sexuality of the young girl, is his pastel Dancer in Red Stockings (ca.1884). The shock of the red hose she tugs on is somewhat explained in noticing that the same figure also appears to the left, shivering. The kid is just cold, but the artist records in the figure to the right not only her chilled body, but also the sexual jolt of her body with those incendiary stockings.
Degas recorded all phases of the ballet, but preferred sketches and scenes of female dancers, almost always female dancers, in training or just before or after a performance. In his late pastels, some of which he rightly dubbed "orgies of color," he often severely abstracts patterns made by arms, legs, and bodies encased in radiant tutus. He even repeats compositions in different colors.
What the exhibition proves is that the ballerinas, many of whom Degas followed throughout their careers, touched him in many ways. He wrote sonnets around the late 1880s. An excerpt from one, written when Degas was around 51, tells us as much about his dedication to the dancers as do his pictures:
Go forth, without the help of useless beauty
My little darlings, with your common face.
Leap shamelessly, you priestesses of grace!
Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall organized the show, which previously appeared at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and wrote the illuminating catalogue. The catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams, is $49.95 in hardback and $35 in softback.
The dance instills in you something that sets you apart,
Something heroic and remote. One knows that in your world
Queens are made of distance and greasepaint.
The exhibition is on view in Philadelphia through May 11, 2003 by timed ticket entry. Special admission $20 for adults, call (215) 235-SHOW for tickets, special hours, and additional info.
* * *
From Pennsburg, Pa., to the American Folk Art Museum comes a lively and charming show of about 70 small Pennsylvania German fraktur drawings. "Fraktur Treasures from the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center," organized by the center, consists of hand-lettered texts in a broken Gothic script with drawings.
Fraktur is a Germanic folk art tradition for illuminating documents, often religious but sometimes secular, that arrived here with immigrants in the 18th century. It died out with the increasing use of printed forms, flourishing from around 1770 to 1850.
Birth and baptismal certificates are the most common documents, but marriage and house blessings, book plates, writing samples, religious texts (some arranged as labyrinths), and simple scenes without texts are here, too. Ink and watercolors in a restricted palette of bright primary colors on small, irregularly sized sheets of paper are used for these highly stylized and decorative works.
Flowers, birds, animals, the sun, moon, stars, and human figures appear frequently and sometimes mermaids and fantastic animals. The drawing of a Wonder Fish, illustrating a folk tale, is both funny and surreal, while a Vorshrift (writing sample) for Joseph Anders by David Kriebel may leave you dizzy with its patterning.
The show is on view through May 11, 2003, at the American Folk Art Museum.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.