Exhibition tells a narrative of artistic change

The works on display in the latest Yale University Art Gallery exhibition, “Master Drawings,” are most certainly atypical: They were not necessarily intended for museum — let alone public — view.

But the 87 European drawings by artists such as Claude Lorrain, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Edgar Degas provide a window into the centuries-long movement to modern art, illuminating artistic transitions and techniques from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Hand drawings never before seen, often lost or left to the confines of a sketchbook, gain new perspective and new meaning.

Organized chronologically, the works evoke a narrative history of technique, form and style. The first drawing, entitled “Lion” and drawn by an anonymous Venetian artist, ironically resembles a tame house cat, sketched as if in preparation for an actual painting.

Moving into the 16th century, the exhibit reveals the artists’ penchants for nature and Mannerist style — overly tall and elongated figures. It also presents a set of ecclesiastical drawings that were most likely created for stained glass, tapestries or embroidery.

The 17th-century portion of “Master Drawings” conveys the return to naturalism contrasted with the dramatic flairs of Baroque style. A sketch by Claude Lorrain entitled “Pastoral Landscape” depicts the visceral feelings of sitting on a countryside, complete with pencil marks and ink smudges.

The purpose of this exhibit, however, is to transcend the musings or critiques of art aficionados. Its limited palette lacking the vitality of the “Colorful Impressions” show upstairs, “Master Drawings” is about the process, not the end result.

Jock Reynolds, director of the YUAG, emphasized this pedagogic notion, calling it the Gallery’s “teaching mission” and noting this exhibition has traveled nationwide to disseminate knowledge.

“A collection-based exhibition such as this one is exciting to assemble, for it propels new research and scholarship, which in turn prompts a teaching museum such as ours to further strengthen its holdings,” Reynolds said. “We are delighted to be able to share these works, seldom viewed beyond our very active print room, with the public at large.”

It is for this reason that the exhibit might seem unfinished — much like some of the works on display — without a deeper historical context. But with the rise of the printing press, paper itself became widely accessible. A mere artist’s assistant could pencil imitations of paintings or sketch purely imaginative images of his own without the fiscal burden of canvas or paint.

Attempting to reveal the “godlike ability of the artist,” John Marciari, the Gallery’s curator of early European art, described the 15th century as the moment when execution became less important than the moment of creation.

Treating the sketch artist as deity, Marciari helped bring to life sketches as he discussed the artistry of the etchings as well as the rarity of their survival. Their very existence defies statistics, he said.

Without the accompanying anecdotes of the curators, the exhibit might seem stark and uninspired. But the intricacies and minutiae of the drawings in sketch form, when contextualized, offer a glimpse into the artists’ approach. Sketch pad clippings may not be considered worthy of framing, but, in this case, they complement 15th- to 19th-century well-known paintings, the more polished display of creative abilities.

From the late 15th-century tracings of a tame lion, the exhibit travels to Edgar Degas’ 19th-century “Portrait of Giulia Bellelli” — a barely visible sketch of a young girl that requires squinting to discern all its contours. In this piece — one of his earlier works — Degas imitates an early Renaissance work, bringing both the exhibit and its history full circle.

“Master Drawing” is on display on the first floor of the YUAG from today through June 8.

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