Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Dawn After the Wreck,” 1841; Watercolor, gouache and rubbing out on paper. Courtauld Institute Gallery, London.
In the past five or six hundred years, internationally celebrated artists have often been deemed “master painters” because their colorful works are so easily identifiable. Yet the current exhibition at the Frick Collection proves that this term has not provided artists with adequate recognition. Organized by the Frick’s deputy director Colin B. Bailey and his colleagues, “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery,” showcases 58 works reflecting the technical diversity of artists who dominate the realm of cultural fame in the minds of Americans. A small and compact presentation, the exhibit’s walls are lined with works dated from the 15th through 20th centuries, and despite its approachable size—dictated by two adjacent galleries in the basement of the museum—the historical range of the works at first appeared overwhelming during my visit. However, my doubts immediately faded after descending the entrance of windy stairs when I learned that each piece had arrived from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; the single source of the work unifies and constrains the scope of the show. The curators were therefore able to successfully streamline their attempt to deepen our respect for drawing and shape our perception of what it really means to be a “master.”
Drawings from Italy, France, Spain, and England, and from periods including the Renaissance, Baroque, and Impressionism hang side by side at eye level, organized chronologically. A potentially chaotic effect is avoided by the clear sequence of time: the room to the right of the staircase moves from the 1400s to the 1600s, and work from the 1600s to the 1900s hangs in the room to the left. Only four drawings are displayed on free standing walls perpendicular to the main sides of the rooms, leaving unlimited space for viewers to walk freely from the beginning of the right room to the end of the left. The organization of the setup in turn effectively draws attention both to general changes in aesthetic over time and to the individual attributes of each drawing.
I noticed the endless discussions among visitors despite the crowded atmosphere, indicating that the free space in the galleries encourages viewers to comment on the substance behind the chronological shifts. Once I had individually walked around the entire exhibition, the two sides became distinct. The earlier right side appeared strikingly monochromatic, with only reds, browns, and whites marked into each piece. These limited palettes show that the “mastery” of artists like Da Vinci, Rubens, and Rembrandt, most known for their paintings, was significantly defined by their ability to achieve the effects of light and natural 3-D modeling with simple media and restrained chromatic range. Instead of creating grand narratives with luminous oil paint, these works are finely detailed, focusing on particular lines and edgework to represent the shapes of the human figure and the fabric adorning it.
With works from later time periods, the left side is contrastingly bolder. After the 17th century, artists became more interested in using broad shapes than thin lines and rigid hatching to render perspective and form modeling. They no longer intended to convey particular details such as casts of light on individual drapes of fabric or edges outlining human features. Instead, the “masters” aimed to create layered compositions with less objective interpretations of form and more experimental uses of media. Turner’s “Dawn After the Wreck,” the exhibition’s clear high point, conveys an emotional intensity that exemplifies this change in emphasis. Drawn in 1841, Turner’s piece utilizes mixtures of gouache, watercolor, and scraped chalk to achieve both smoothness and textural depth. Its subject matter—a lonely howling dog, blood tainted beach, and eerie colored clouds—depicts a desperate coastal scene. The melancholy effect is partly achieved by the varied range of color that diverges from the constrained earth tones in the room to the right. Both a wide streak of ultramarine in the horizon and the sandy yellow reflection of the moon onto the shore represent a shift in focus from specific to general and subtle detail. Turner has used a spatial image to communicate a strong feeling, and the curators’ structured arrangement of the galleries has accentuated his triumph.
The show’s precise organization also grants every included time period an equal amount of attention. Visitors comment just as much on the physical forms and concepts behind the images in the right room as on those in the left. As I walked along a wall in the first gallery, I could hear women discussing how the happiness of the instruments in Bloemaert’s “Death and the Lovers” contrasts with its grim imagery of death exemplified by a figure’s skeletal legs. A similar level of enthusiasm was present in the second gallery, where a couple mentioned the power of the shapes and heavy lines in drawings by Daumier and Degas. This balance reflects the overall success of the exhibition. An effort to heighten an appreciation for a more restricted media through a historically broad lens is seamlessly combined with proof that diverse interpretations of skill have equal merit in qualifying the aesthetic of the “master” artist.
By: Solomon Bass