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by N. F. Karlins
|Not Jan. 1, but Jan. 9, 2000, is the crucial date for lovers of drawings. That's the final day to see the huge loan show, "From Schongauer to Holbein: Master Drawings from Basel and Berlin," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The almost 200 sheets chart draftsmanship from the late Gothic to the Renaissance in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Organized by the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel and the Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the exhibition was presented by the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1997 for the opening of festivities honoring the fifth centennial of the birth of Hans Holbein the Younger and, in 1998, it marked the opening of the new building of Berlin's Gemäldegalerie. This is the last chance to see this vast and endlessly exciting selection of Old Master drawings outside of their home museums.
The exhibition starts with late Gothic works from the Upper Rhine, including four stunning sheets by Martin Schongauer and two more by his workshop. The pen marks of Schongauer's curly-headed Angel of the Annunciation (ca.1600) all look sharply incised, similar to the engravings that made him famous throughout Europe. His beautiful The Madonna with a Pink, done about five to 10 years later, shows a variety of strokes along with the crosshatching that he developed for his engravings.
Albrecht Dürer wanted to visit Schongauer on his Wanderjahre, but failed to reach the master before his death. Dürer was strongly influenced by him nonetheless. His Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Music-Making Angels (1485) show the precocious 14-year-old employing many of Schongauer's techniques and motifs as he launches his own career.
With 35 sheets devoted to Dürer, covering all media and spanning his entire career, there is a veritable Dürer mini-exhibition tucked inside this capacious show of masterpieces. Dürer traveled extensively and incorporated everything he saw. After visiting Venice, for example, he became a master of watercolor. His Lobster (1495) is an impressive souvenir from that region. His later Portrait of an Architect (1506), brushed in black and white watercolor on blue paper, is one of the most accomplished and penetrating portraits he or any other artist ever made in this medium.
Study Sheet with Nine Depictions of St. Christopher (1521), part of a travel diary from a journey to the Netherlands, offers a glimpse of Dürer's restless creativity in action.
Lucas Cranach the Elder's watercolor Head of a Peasant (ca.1525), one of six sheets by the artist, presents something quite rare in Renaissance art -- a realistic and dignified face of a member of the lower classes. This is not the only peasant head in Cranach's oeuvre, but the most moving, with his fur hat, ruddy complexion and sensitive blue eyes.
Completely different is Matthias Grünewald's Crying Head (ca.1520). This impressive black chalk shows a male throwing back his head while waiting. It's hard to think of a more emotional piece. Also notable among the seven drawings from Grünewald (especially considering there are only about 30 extant), is a Study for St. Dorothy with a pleated dress that looks straight out of Issey Miyake!
For the macabre, Hans Baldung Grien is the man. His momento mori, Death and the Maiden, with its skeletal Death playing peek-a-boo from behind a nude, buxom woman looking in a mirror, is just plain eerie. The only thing creepier is the pitiless commentaries on war by the Swiss Urs Graf, like his pen-and-ink Armless Girl with Peg Leg (1514).
Hans Holbein the Younger is another master who rates a mini-show all to himself. An early male-female pair of silverpoint portraits (1516), an almost 3-D Holy Family (ca.1518-9) in black ink on red-brown paper, his first colored-chalk portraits taken from painted marble sculpture in France, a Study for a Family Portrait of Thomas More and several splendid colored-chalk portraits from his years in the service of Henry VIII are among the 31 pieces by him in the show. Others by his short-lived older brother Ambrosius and by his father round out an in-depth exploration of the family's contributions to draftsmanship.
Some critics have suggested that the show is too large. After spending two hours looking and developing a case of eyestrain, I have to concur that a few less drapery studies wouldn't have lessened the show's impact. Most pieces, however, would be hard to sacrifice. They offer too much pleasure as well as insight on how drawing developed along the Rhine and Danube.
Nearby at the National Gallery, also to Jan. 9, is "The Drawings of Annibale Carracci," the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the drawings by this Bologna-born master. His works are usually shown with those of his brother, Agostino, and his cousin, Ludovico. The threesome labored together and separately on many commissions in a workshop run by Ludovico. Together they founded the first art academy.
The Carracci are noted for turning from Mannerism toward a more naturalistic art. One hint of Annibale's interest in the everyday instead of the elegant distortions of Mannerism is an early sheet with A Butcher Hanging a Side of Meat on one side and A Man Weighing Meat on the other. His male portraits are always engaging, and one of a winsome little boy is charmingly alive.
Annibale Carracci's masterpiece is the decoration of the Farnese Gallery in Rome. An eleven-foot square cartoon for the right half of the ceiling of the Gallery, The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, has survived and is being shown for the first time outside of Italy. This rollicking Bacchic Procession with Silenus is done is black chalk on more than 50 joined pieces of brown paper. It is partially pricked for transfer and probably owes its existence to being used for another cartoon, not the actual ceiling painting.
Elsewhere in D.C., American drawings are hot. "Edward Hopper: The Watercolors" is a traveling show, now at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art through Jan. 3. Hopper was still making a living as an illustrator when he met Jo Nivison, an artist and later his wife, on vacation in Gloucester, Mass., in 1923. She encouraged him to try watercolors, something he'd used in his work but not in his art up to that time. He instantly mastered the medium. Success in selling watercolors gave him the money to quit illustration and new confidence to devote to his paintings.
Happy results are there from the start, as in The Mansard Roof (1923). Hopper's watercolors are as wonderful at capturing light and shadow in all their moods as his paintings. He did hundreds of watercolors, which became sparer as he matured. By about 1946, he stopped making them, turning to his painting full time. It's hard to believe that this is the first show of Hopper's watercolors in 40 years. The show's last stop is at the Montgomery (Ala.) Museum of Fine Arts, Jan. 30-Mar., 26, 2000.
Finally, over at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, "Shahzia Sikander" (through Feb. 21, 2000) is the subject of the museum's "Directions" series on young artists. Sikander burst into the art world with her showing at the last Whitney Museum Biennial. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in this exhibition Sikander shows her devotion to the intricate techniques and imagery of Persian miniatures, a devotion that seems to be loosening up over time.
At first, Sikander used the small scale and the exquisite, labor-intensive technical facility of the subcontinent as a framework for her own drawings that comment on her feelings about being female and an outsider in the West. The traditional decorative borders are now disappearing, and images are being combined more freely. She has even started making large-scale murals. She is definitely an artist to watch.
N. F. KARLINS writes Artnet Magazine's regular column on drawings.