Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum

If ever I’ve seen an informative and theoretical exhibition, here was it. Following Change to Come? and the foundation show it dialogues, here is a show and a blog marking the change to come in my art education: from almost wholly practise to incessant study; from an environment of the very contemporary in art, to a varied environment of sources and a traditional approach to the study of art’s history. My Art & Design Foundation diploma is complete, and I embark on a History of Art degree in the Autumn term that is destined in its final year for the origin of many of the drawings in this exhibition, in a study trip to Venice.I found it uncannily considerate how the colour scheme chosen by the British Museum, a rich berry red and naturalistic Christmas tree green; and the demography of visitors couldn’t point more literally to the topic of tradition itself. The Renaissance, I’ve always felt, is where the traditions of Western Art began, and as the exhibition very clearly explains, the tradition of drawing.

Renaissance Man (author, artist, architect, poet, philosopher etc.), Leon Battista Alberti, warned, ‘Never take the stylus or brush in your hand if you have not first constituted in your mind all that you have to do.’ I think most contemporary tutors and artists would advise this also for a brush, but for a pencil, we see how the tradition of drawing and its purpose has changed.To make a drawing could have two very different approaches: to plan and to sell. To plan may be with brisk rousing marks as in Da Vinci’s fluid Virgin and Child with a Cat c.1475-81, as he explains: ‘The sketching out of a narrative should be rapid, and the arrangement of limbs not too defined.’ This becomes the visual brainstorm of the artist as he considers a range of compositions (mostly). Or to plan, as in elder works – from model books of old paintings – the composition of a scene through the careful cohesion of many parts. Or, as never seen quite so importantly as before this time: to sell oneself. Artists could advertise their skills in finished books of drawings and prints (to which could be reproduced) to the wealthy bankers that kept town states such as Florence and Venice afloat and thriving.

From an exhibition that includes the works of powerhouse High Renaissance artists: Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, I was challenged by the sight of a Da Vinci charcoal mess. I found myself resting in front of some other favourable Italians, whose drawings reflect a core of craftsmanship, and an intuitive talent. One was Andrea Mantegna, and his dramatic Man Lying on a Stone Slab, c.1475-85 (pictured), that for anyone who knew it already, would reignite imagery of his stunning tempera masterpiece The Lamentation over Dead Christ, c.1480, and both pieces’ highly desirable foreshortening. This is the growing talent of the Renaissance that can be spotted over the retrospect of the exhibition, and the course of 150 years from the late Gothic traits, to the borderline Baroque.

Another notable piece would be Fra Filippo Lippi’s radiant Virgin and Child with Two Angels (recto) c.1460-5, where exquisite yet bold touches of white over an ochre preparation are so commandingthat the drawing exudes the physical and metaphorical light and purity intended from these four characters. Quite on the other end would be the stainless steal appeal of Fra Bartolommeo’s Christ in Judgement c. 1500, whose very finished and crisply delivered drawing, found at the end of the exhibition, enunciates drawings, (though never excepted on the same plane as a painting,) as being a considered art form themselves. My feelings on it couldn’t be arranged better than Giorgio Vasari wrote in Lives of the Artists, 1568, ‘Drawing: the father of our three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting.’ For me, drawing is a key skill that underlines all great artists, and for me, the practise of it births undeniable masterpieces.

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings is at the British Museum until 25 July.

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