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DRAWING NOTEBOOK
by N.F. Karlins
 
"Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and "Egon Schiele" at the Neue Galerie offer incomparable opportunities to study works by two of the world’s greatest draughtsmen.

At the Metropolitan Museum, the entire sweep of van Gogh’s ten-year career as an artist is represented in a monumental exhibition of about 100 drawings and five oils.

From van Gogh’s early figure studies to his exhilarating landscapes and immensely moving interior asylum views, this must-see show never fails to enlighten and inspire. Needless to say, considering the number of loans and the delicacy of the drawings, this exhibition is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In 1880 at age 27, having failed at every job he’d turned his hand to, Vincent van Gogh took his brother Theo’s advice to take up art. Mostly self-taught, Vincent struggled to become a figure painter, not a landscapist, and began his self-study with a drawing manual, Cours de dessin by Charles Bargue.

The earliest figure drawing in this show, Boy with a Sickle from late 1881 in black chalk, charcoal and opaque watercolor, reflects a few lessons he received during the summer of 1881 from the painter Anton Mauve (also his cousin by marriage). The drawing feels clumsy but shows the artist experimenting with a variety of media. It’s hard to imagine that only seven years later the same hand will produce The Zouave in reed pen, pen and ink.

With van Gogh’s natural affinity for landscape, it’s much easier to see in his 1884 Winter Garden, a pen-and-ink from a series based on a view beside his father’s vicarage, a hint of his later Provençal landscapes. This drawing doesn’t need figures because Van Gogh has provided dramatis personae in the form of trees. His own faith and stint as a preacher is hinted at in the distant tower of a ruined medieval church.

After absorbing Impressionism’s lighter palette, Pointillism’s dots and dashes, and the compressed space of Japanese prints in Paris, van Gogh consolidated it all in Arles in 1887. This potent mix, along with his finding the perfect kind of reed for his homemade pens, detonates in drawings like his View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground from May of 1888. Here, with stripes, flecks, dots and wedges set in motion, he finally achieved, at least temporarily, a sense of mastery.

One of the exciting discoveries of the exhibition is the role of répétitions in van Gogh’s oeuvre. Van Gogh made many drawings after his paintings, tinkering with the composition while sending them as updates of his work to artist-friends. He turned out variation after variation. A drawing executed before and another after the painting Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, plus the painting itself, offer plenty to think about.

After repeated mental attacks, van Gogh entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy. He quickly ran out of oils but used leftover paints to create strongly brushed oils-on-paper of the interior. These sturdy works are among his best drawings (or oils, if you prefer). Whatever you call them, they are too beautiful to miss.

"Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" is accompanied by a gorgeous catalogue. I don’t know whether I’m more impressed by the connoisseurship or the technical analysis of the works. It’s a must-have.

The show was organized by Colta Ives, curator in the Met’s department of drawings and prints, and Susan Alyson Stein, a Met curator of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art, along with Sjraar van Heugten, head of collections and Marije Vellekoop, curator of drawings, both of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition was seen at the Van Gogh Museum prior to its showing at the Met.

"Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 18-Dec. 31, 2005.

*     *     *
"Egon Schiele" reveals a very different artist. Confident of his genius, willing to go to the academy and equally happy to break with it at only 19, Schiele was a fully developed artist at 20.

While van Gogh’s most interesting works date from the last three years of his life, mental illness (current research points to temporal-lobe epilepsy) brought about his too-early death by suicide. It’s possible to say that the mental illness of Egon Schiele’s father brought about his son’s artistic maturity and his fixation on sexuality.

Schiele’s father died of untreated syphilis, suffering numerous mental lapses in front of his children, including one suicide attempt. He could never bring himself to admit his disease. Just before consummating his marriage on his honeymoon, he went to a brothel. He seems to have been infected then, passing the disease immediately to his bride. She bore three stillborn little boys and a little girl who died at ten, plus Egon and his older and younger sisters. Egon Schiele was 14 at the time of his father’s death.

In 1910, at age 20, Egon Schiele, having already broken with the academy, being a friend of the famous Gustav Klimt, who famously doted on females, and having made himself into an accomplished draughtsman, reached his signature style.

Some time during 1910, he exchanged drawings and a painting of the gynecologist, Portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff, for his services, specifically an abortion. Did his sexual maturity coincide with his artistic maturity? It may be. Or perhaps his sense of sexual responsibility coincided with his artistic adulthood.

At any rate, in his portrait Dr. von Graff, the gynecologist has a serene yet Mephistophelean demeanor. The flesh of his face and arms is painted in an intriguing yet unappealing mottled green. He wears a plaster on one finger, which the Schiele catalogue suggests may "cast the doctor’s competence into question." I couldn’t help thinking it might prove his bravery, faced with a vagina dentata, especially as it is his ring finger.

That gaze is the typical Schiele gaze of a subject complicit with the artist in his undertaking. It’s what makes the difference between the nude academies, or nude studies required of art students, including Schiele’s dutiful Standing Male Nude from 1907 versus Schiele’s later naked men and women. Just compare Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head from only three years later. The gaze is not just complicit but challenging. It dares the viewer to accept the posed and exposed subject.

Van Gogh’s early search for figure subjects was tempered by his own religious commitment, inspired by his vicar-father, and resulted in his sympathetic depiction of elderly residents of an old age home and weary peasants. Schiele’s early subjects were family, friends and models at the academy. But once out on his own, he asked the sympathetic Dr. von Graff to allow him to work in his clinic, where he’d have access "to draw pregnant women, infants and stillbirths, a choice of subjects that may have been inspired by Gustav Klimt’s paintings," according to the catalogue. Then again, maybe Schiele had other reasons, inspired by his family history.

The 1910-and-later female and male nudes of Egon Schiele are sexy, tantalizing and often daringly cropped. They invite the eye to linger. One or more figures uncover their sexual organs while wearing alluring bits of clothing. Schiele certainly knew how to put fashion to use. You can see it in his drawings and in a series of clothing designs he made.

This important show also contains several wonderful landscape paintings and a few still-lifes and prints.

The catalogue for "Egon Schiele," an attractive coffee-table size tome, is exciting in its plotting out some of the ways that Schiele has impacted pop culture in art, fashion and design. It also gives all those involved with bringing Schiele to the New World a chance to ruminate on the artist. The catalogue is also commendable for giving as much as is known about the provenance of each work, something most museums have not done as yet.

"Egon Schiele" is drawn entirely from the collections of the two founders of the Neue Galerie, Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky. Its sole venue is the Neue Galerie, Oct. 21, 2005-Feb. 20, 2006.

*     *     *
For an overview of a more contemporary master’s drawings, head downtown to Peter Blum Gallery’s "Alex Katz: Working Drawings from 1965 to 2002," Sept. 16-Nov. 12, 2005. More than 130 drawings march around the gallery in rows in chronological order. Most relate to paintings, but the sketches are enjoyable on their own.

Early drawings cropped with masking tape show Mr. Katz looking for the right frame for his vision. Sketches of figures expose his first thoughts in some cases; his struggle to get the anatomy right in others.

Drawing was and is a constant in Katz’s life. His devotion to drawing ultimately yields his balanced, pared down naturalistic paintings. It also yields a number of more finished sheets, like his December in black marker pen from 1997.

This entire set of drawings, which totals more than 350, may end up in a museum. Then again, it may not. While the negotiations are taking place, orders are being taken for individual drawings at $2300 each. Stay tuned until mid-November. That’s when the museum involved makes up its mind.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.



 



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