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Review: A Doodle That Is Worth a Thousand Words: Drawings Through History at the Met

By John Tilly, Contributing Writer, October 5, 2017

Who knew a doodle could hold such immense weight through the centuries? But doodle they did, the great artists of Western civilization, and the Met is here to walk us through these sometimes quick, sometimes slow and methodical drawings that have survived the test of time thanks to the voracious collector Robert Lehman, from whose collection the entirety of this new exhibition is drawn.

Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471-1528 Nuremberg), Self-portrait, Study of a Hand and a Pillow (recto); Six Studies of Pillows (verso), 1493. Pen and brown ink; 10 15/16 x 7 15/16 in. (27.8 x 20.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.86).

Leonardo to Matisse – Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection is a veritable survey of European art masters, organized chronologically and covering five hundred years of art development. It is appropriate that the approach to the gallery is through the Medieval portion of the museum, because the end of the Middle Ages marked the beginning of the Renaissance, and it is from this point in history that the exhibition springboards into its unique dual narrative: that of the development of drawing as a stand-alone art form as well as the story of Robert Lehman as traveling collector and connoisseur of art from these various periods.

The pieces are full of small joys, and indeed are almost all quite small in scale. The obvious heroes are the Italian Renaissance pieces, especially those by Leonardo da Vinci and the Florentines, with their loving attention to the natural world and the human form.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853-1890 Auvers-sur-Oise), Road in Etten, 1881. Chalk, pencil, pastel, watercolor. Underdrawing in pen and brown ink. 15 1/2 x 22 3/4 in. (39.4 x 57.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.774).

It is a bit of a delightful surprise to encounter some of the Northern masters as well, including Albrecht Dürer and, later, artists from the French Rococo and Neo-Classical eras, as well as Impressionism and the beginnings of abstraction via Matisse in the final iteration of the gallery.

Each piece is arresting in its own way, be it style, detail, or the way the figure captures the viewer’s eye, and yet they are all just drawings, that simplest of art forms. Robert Lehman seems to have found a certain joy in these simple-yet-compellingly realized works, which find their fascination in the basic wonder of art itself: that a squiggle or a slash could so easily represent the human form, a building, an animal, and yet what great effort arrival at such ease requires.

It is an interesting show as testament to the power both of collecting art and creating it. Its brisk skip through centuries in a small gallery could be read as overly simplistic, but the clever focus of the exhibit blithely shrugs this off. Besides, one is left wondering – as one often is when leaving the Met – what such a survey from nowadays would look like.

Antonello da Messina (Antonello di Giovanni d’Antonio) (Italian, Messina ca. 1430–1479 Messina)
Group of Draped Figures, early 1460s
Tip of the brush (or fine pen?) and brown ink; 4 5/16 x 5 7/8 in. (11 x 14.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.265)

This exhibition feels like a refreshing survey in the history that has led to our modern moment in art, at least up to a point, and leaves the viewer thirsty for more, ready to tackle modernity in all its disparate complexity.

Odilon Redon (French, Bordeaux 1840–1916 Paris), Pegasus and Bellerophon, ca. 1888. Charcoal, charcoal with water wash, white chalk, conté crayon, and highlighting by erasure on buff papier bleuté, darkened; 21 1/8 x 14 3/16 in. (53.7 x 36.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.686).



Cover Photo: Circle of Michelino da Besozzo (Michelino de Mulinari) (Italian, Lombardy, active 1388–1450), A Gazelle in Profile, Moving Toward the Right, early 15th century. Tip of the brush and brown, gray (both in various shades), and black ink; contours with metalpoint (?or black chalk?); touches of white chalk; brown and light brownish gray wash; on vellum; 3 9/16 x 4 3/16 in. (9.1 x 10.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.402).


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