PostHeaderIcon 200 Years of Master Drawings

For more than two centuries, from the early 19th through the 20th century postwar era, anyone calling themselves an “Artist” had to be versed in drawing and printmaking. When the capital of the modern art world moved from Paris to New York following World War II, drawing dropped below painting and the more muscular, grand gestures of Abstract Expressionism.

Jacques-Louis David, Vieillard et Jeune Femme

Jacques-Louis David, Vieillard et Jeune Femme

Drawing and prints were once an essential part of an artist’s toolkit. Artists turned to drawing to fashion preparatory studies before putting paint to canvas or as finished compositions in their own right. Drawing was the artists’ common thread and a practice they regularly employed in their search for new, innovative ideas.

It is uncommon, in current times, to find museums mounting drawing exhibitions (unless the artists are named Leonardo or Michelangelo). Even the Art Institute, which houses a world-class prints and drawings collection, has been reluctant, in recent memory, to showcase this prized archive with a full-scale exhibition.

Which is why it’s refreshing and commendable that the Milwaukee Art Museum has mounted a revelatory exhibit of 150 works (that runs through January 28, 2018) from the holdings of two noted Chicago collectors. The show arrives in Milwaukee after a successful run at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, England.

It traces the evolutionary development of modernism in France. In the early 19th Century, the practice of art and who might be considered an artist were rigidly controlled by the French Academy which emphasized slavish devotion to classical themes drawn mainly from ancient history and mythology.

Artists increasingly chafed at such restrictions and sought the freedom to find their own styles. This movement began in the 1830s and 1840s by such pre-Impressionist artists as Millet, Pissarro and Manet. These precursors gave way in 1874 to the Impressionists led by Monet, Cezanne and Renoir to be followed by Van Gogh, Gauguin and the Post-Impressionists.

Exhibition curator, Britany Salsbury, has mounted a very intelligent exhibition aided by the quality of the drawings at her disposal. She has arranged the works in a chronological survey that guides the viewer through 11 of the museum’s galleries with informative wall texts that begin with “Academy and Avant-Garde” and moving onward to “Challenging Artistic Traditions” followed several galleries beyond with “Moving Into the Modern World” and closing with “Wild Beasts and Cubists”.

Pablo Picasso, Female Nude

Pablo Picasso, Female Nude

The collection is fully capable of supporting such a wide-ranging show. It is comprehensive in scope with no historical or artistic gaps in the coverage extending from such lesser-known figures as Louis-Leopold Boilly and Theodore Chasseriau to more textbook figures as Delacroix, Honore Daumier, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and through modern art giants like Manet, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin and Picasso.

Yet the show’s purpose is not to focus on the art stars but rather the great technique and versatility of so many artists. I found another of the exhibition’s pleasures in discovering, and reveling many times, at stunning work by lesser-known figures such as Raoul Dufy (“Sainte Adresse Seen Through the Trees”), Albert Gleizes (“The City and The River”), Jean Metzinger (“Landscape”) and Jacques Villon (“L’Equilibriste”—The Tightrope Walker).

Only a few days remain to catch this richly satisfying showing of a less familiar genre, once an indispensable part of an artist’s vocabulary. While paint is the fuel that propels the contemporary art world, this exhibition says that we are foolishly overlooking an equally rich heritage of pen and ink. Milwaukee Art Museum.



Tom Mullaney is the New Art Examiner’s Senior Editor.

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