Jul 2010 Journal

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Art notes (review)

‘Draw, Antonio! Draw and don’t waste time!’ A typical art teacher’s admonition to a lazy student, you might think. Well, the teacher was Michaelangelo, the year 1522, and the concept of drawing was relatively new to the Italian Renaissance. Its development forms the basis of a collaborative exhibition by the British Museum and the Uffizi Gallery, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, which runs at the British Museum until the end of this month and proves how taking pencil to paper laid the foundations of the High Renaissance.

Among 100 drawings made between 1400 and 1510 are sketches by Botticelli, Carpaccio, Michaelangelo, Bellini and Raphael, shown alongside reproductive details of their famous works. And sometimes the sketches display more energy and creativity than the finished painting.

In Florence and Venice, drawing offered artists a mathematical, but also more naturalistic perspective, even while they remained attached to depicting classical Roman sculptural drapery. Drawing evolved through trade. Paper was invented by the Chinese and arrived in Europe via Arab trading routes in 1400. The earliest known preparatory drawing for a surviving panel painting is by a Gothic master, Lorenzo Monaco, made in about 1407 as part of an altarpiece. Also of interest is Fra Angelico’s depiction of King David plucking a psaltery.

From 1430 onwards Florence flourished as a cultural centre for the Medici and their kinsmen. Leonardo da Vinci studied here in the workshop of Verrocchio, whose own sensuous female faces were often finished by Leonardo. His 1473 work is the earliest landscape drawing in European art and the first documented by the great Renaissance artist.

Harmoniously, the Wallace Collection’s exhibition Beauty and Power (to 25 July) features Italian and French Renaissance and Baroque bronzes from architect Peter Marino’s collection. The perfect musculature of these often quite small figures, with the light cleverly angled to show the proportions of their bodies, is breathtaking. Many are sculpted in combative pose in order to emphasise this perfection.

Quilts 1700-2010 at the V&A (to 4 July) offers a fascinating social, political and military history of this essentially cottage industry. A first for the V&A, it covers a panoply of historical and contemporary events, showing the way artists would literally weave and patch their own lives into their bedcovers or wall hangings, using old receipts, ledger books and shopping lists as templates. These were handed down through the generations, often using recycled materials. More than anything, this is art as memory. Men, too, were encouraged to get involved as part of the Temperance Society’s attempts to keep them out of the taverns. As Britain’s mercantile role boomed in the nineteenth century, printed cottons flooded the market and many were used as fragments for quilting, often celebrating military victories and coronations. Particularly moving is a quilt-in-progress by an inmate of Wandsworth Prison, who describes the serenity the work offered him. The National Gallery of Australia has loaned what is probably the most poignant of all: the Rajah quilt, made in 1841 by women transportees to Tasmania, work zealously encouraged by Reformist women.

Gloria Tessler

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