Mantegna to Matisse - The Open College of the Arts
Explore #WeAreOCA
Skip Navigation

Mantegna to Matisse

Jim Cowan reports on an exhibition that’s up his street.
‘For OCA drawing and watercolour students, finding an exhibition that shows examples of work can often be a difficult undertaking. Galleries that show paintings are more prone to show oil or acrylics, and it is especially hard to find a major gallery that exhibits watercolours and drawings. Is this because curators think watercolour is not a serious medium for contemporary artists to explore? As for drawings, well nobody does drawing anymore do they? You don’t have to be able to draw to create art and anyway it’s such a minor art form, you hear them say.

Cezanne: Apples, bottles and chairback

The Courtauld Gallery is continuing its run of excellent shows by staging ‘Mantegna to Matisse’, an exhibition that celebrates the art of drawing across 500 years. The subject matter is either secular or religious, finished work or sketches, dry media or watercolour. There are 60 works on display from the Courtauld Institute’s collection and all the major artists in the period are represented. What you find is that artists tend to use drawing media in the preparatory process of a composition and these are often relegated to sketchbooks or discarded and not shown in an exhibition situation. Who would possibly be interested in the artist’s initial thoughts or their skill with a pencil or pastel? In the past collectors kept drawings of this sort in albums and these were often marked with the owner’s personal stamp.
The importance of drawing is that it gives insight into the creativity and thought processes of the artist. A rapid sketch by Leonardo of two figures, which was done for his own benefit, is placed next to Michelangelo’s ‘Il Sogno’ (The Dream) of 1533 that was produced as a presentation drawing for a young Roman nobleman. Nearby, Pontormo’s ‘Seated Youth’ of 1520 is a studio drawing that stylistically seems modern, so confident is the fluent and economic technique. Equally telling is the quill pen and brown ink Rembrandt drawing of two men talking (1641) that hangs next to the Van Gogh drawing of ‘A Tile Factory’ (1888) also in brown ink, but this time done with reed pens. In both you can see the same economy of line and shorthand notation that captures the scene.
Honore Daumier The Hypochondriac 1850

There is no overriding theme to this exhibition. It is instead a collection of well-known names from the Courtauld’s collection. Inevitably some drawings will stand out more than others depending on the viewer’s interests and tastes. An example might be the great Flemish artist Peter Paul Ruben’s portrait of his second wife Helena Fourmet (1630-31). Confidently done in black, red and white chalk retouched with pen and ink, it is not a completely finished drawing. The face and hand have received more care and attention in comparison to other parts of the drawing, and the stylistic combination is all the more telling in the personal nature of the task. Another striking drawing, this time in black Conte crayon, is George Seurat’s ‘Female Nude’ (1878) where the intensely drawn lines on rough paper heighten the contrast of the white figure against the dark background.
For humour you can’t beat Honore Daumier, who’s ‘Hypochondriac’ (1850) is a caricature that interprets the scene from ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’ by Moliere. The patient, lying in bed, eyes with alarm the oversized clyster eagerly held by the doctor’s assistant. An enema seems to be the required treatment for this particular malaise!
Drawn in pen, ink and wash it hangs next to an example of what Art Historians like to call a ‘watercolour drawing’ by the Englishman Francis Towne. The term implies that the drawing has been heightened with watercolour and it was not until Girtin and Turner come along that watercolour became elevated in status as a major medium. Cezanne’s use of watercolour is very distinctive, and his ‘Apple, Bottle and Chair Back’ of 1902 stands out in its use of colour, with reds, blue and greens predominating. There is a building up of colour and wash over a pencil drawing that reveals the potential freshness and spontaneity of the medium.
Rubens - Helena Fourment 1630-31

The show ends with a drawing of an odalisque by Matisse only because of the need for an attractive title –Mantegna to Matisse, but it so easily could have been Pontormo to Picasso or any other appropriate alliteration. Good as this exhibition is, it somehow leaves you wanting more. Did the art of drawing and watercolour end there or does the Courtauld, which relies on donations for its collection, have nothing that takes us into the 20th Century and beyond?
This is an exciting exhibition and not to be missed. It shows the initial ideas of great artists, mostly not intended for exhibition and as such is very revealing. If art is anything it is a continuing tradition, and the art of drawing its most basic requirement. To neglect this fundamental means of expression will leave us all the poorer.’

Posted by author: Jim
Share this post:

14 thoughts on “Mantegna to Matisse

  • Although I agree that there are not many major museums or galleries staging shows on drawing, some smaller galleries are. I believe that drawing is alive and kicking. Not only that, if the latest batch of degree shows is anything to go by, it is edging into the limelight. Scottish Art Colleges kept life drawing on the curriculum long after most English ones dropped it before they, too, decided it was no longer relevant. This has had a curious effect. Many artists, not knowing what to do with their pencils started seeing drawing as a subject in its own right. Of course, it may have had nothing to do with the lack of models and more to do with the conceptualisation of art students. Drawing became more about ideas and less about recording information for using in a painting. I think a particular tendency for obsessive detail and repetition has been born of this but I see that, as drawing has had more of a chance to spread its wings, further tendencies are becoming apparent. To highlight this, I would like to mention a recent exhibition of drawing, ‘A Parliament of Lines’, that was held at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh (quite a major gallery) and is touring to the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness and the RMIT University Gallery in Melbourne. This exhibition explored the possibilities of drawing in its contemporary context. The work ranged from tiny graphite drawings of old photographs to sculptuaral investigation. Among the artists was Charles Avery who,for ten years or more, has been creating an imaginary island in drawings, text and sculpture. He works like an anthropologist returning from an exploratory trip, docummenting the inhabitants, their customs and their environment. The results are wierd, compelling and unsettling. I couldn’t find a dedicated website for him, but if you google there are plenty of references.
    Josef Herman said, ‘By distancing itself from the physicality of solid matter, drawing comes closest to the actual workings of a mind.’ I think this is the way many contemporary artists are approaching drawing. There is still room, I hope, for those who want to get closer to the physicality of solid matter and see drawing less as a ‘line around a think’ and more as an exploration and response.
    Now, watercolour has to catch up with drawing and find a platform. We have the Turner watercolours exhibited every January in the Scottish National Gallery. I hope more contemporary artists visit it and see its possibilities.

  • Charles Avery is a typical example of the artist as an archivist -the collector and chronicler – fiction and types of archive are persistent themes in contemporary and conceptual thinking. I would recommend that students try to get hold of Charles Avery’s book – The Islanders An Introduction from his major exhibition at the Parasol Unit London in 2008 published by Koenig Books London.
    The most striking thing about Avery’s work is the diversity of his practice – highly recommended.

  • Bristol has a Drawingt school, which started in a small way a few years ago and is now firmly established at the Royal West of England Academy. They do some very interesting work . Always fully booked so the interest is there for people wanting to learn.
    I agree with everything Jim says, and thank you for the information

  • I went to this exhibition just after it opened and loved it. As a drawing student I saw this one as essential and it was well worth the trip down to London. I agree there are not enough drawing exhibitions but as Olivia says there are glimmers of hope. There is an exhibition at Chatsworth on until November of their private collection of master drawings. It is also worth noting that many institutions will arrange for drawings to be brought out for you to study, even they are not on exhibition. The Ashmolean in Oxford does this as an example.

  • This looks like a must see exhibition, thanks for the review Jim. I actually prefer and find sketches and studies much more exciting to look at, I am particularly excited by those that are only part finished – not sure why?
    And thanks Richard for the book title!

  • I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the exhibition ‘Mantegna to Matisse’ at the Courtauld Gallery today, and relished the opportunity to do some sketching of some of the finest drawings I have encountered for quite some time. It was refreshing to visit an exhibition devoted entirely to drawing and is pertinent to me as a Drawing One student.
    One of the stand-out pieces for me was the study for the ‘Grande Odalisque’ by Jean-Auguste-Dominique-Ingres. In this nude sketch, Ingres managed to capture the elegance and fluidity of the model’s pose with an economy of line which reflected his skill as an artist.
    I also admired Cézanne’s watercolour sketch ‘Apples, Bottle and Chairback’, due to its loose and free style. The fact that he had made slight alterations to it as it developed only increased my fascination.
    One of my favourite aspects of this exhibition was the fact that I was able to view a variety of drawings by a wide variety of artists. Some of the sketches were fast and loose; created with minimal marks, whilst others were more involved and highly developed.
    I would like to visit more exhibitions which showcase the prepatory drawings alongside the finished canvases, as sometimes it is difficult to appreciate how the final canvas has come about. It feels as though as viewers we sometimes miss out on the entire process the canvas has undergone. I like the intuitiveness of the early drawings and their lack of perfection. I found it very reassuring to discover that even Picasso could make mistakes and misjudge where parts of the body should be on the paper!
    Furthermore, as a Drawing One student it was really beneficial for me to observe and analyse other artist’s work and try to understand how they approach their paintings and drawings. I’ll definitely visit the Courtauld Gallery again, to view the rest of their extensive collection. Another incentive is that it is free entry for OCA students!

  • Perhaps the misconception that drawing has played a lesser role in art education and in contemporary art practice is due to more flexible boundaries between genres and increasing inter-disciplinary approaches since the seventies. For example much installation art today is centred on drawing, but does not necessarily spell it out (Fred Sandback is a good example). For many artists working today (including myself) drawing is taken as a given, constant at the core of our practice and driving all that we do. When planning projects we use drawing as well as writing – mapping out initial ideas, taking into consideration scale, ground, composition, light and so on. For visually aware practitioners drawing is part of the process of thinking and making. How to explain an idea to another artist? Do a quick sketch. How to put forward a proposal for funding for a major art work? Do a more detailed three-dimensional drawing. How to find inspiration for a new work? Simply start drawing and it will come. This is part of how drawing is taught in most art colleges today – traditional techniques and more conceptual approaches combined in a creative activity that loosens the borders between art forms. Drawing can be used in many ways – as a way of thinking through an idea and finding the appropriate medium or media. It can also be the documentation of an activity (for example, the experience of a train journey or of moving to music). Today it is interesting to consider drawing in terms of performance and film – as a time based and physical activity rather than (or as well as) a static image. Drawing today means the image may be multiple, and not always ‘framed’ by a rectangular support, and this instils the fact that drawing is both verb and noun, activity and thing.

  • To Illustrate Linda’s points above may I direct students to look at the animated film drawing of William Kentridge and the work he has produced on Post-Apartheid South Africa. There is a particularly good scholarly essay on kentridge by Jessica Dubow and Ruth Rosengarten in the September 2004 edition of Art History – this can be found on (editions of Art history are too expensive and will set you back £150 a year for the quarterly journals).
    The essay mainly discusses kentridge’s 1996 animated film History of the Main Complaint and I quote ” kentridge has developed a unique graphic technique in which charcoal drawings of objects and bodies are sketched and partially rubbed out and re-emerge – transfigured- in a ceaseless flow of erasure and re-inscription. Forms body forth from sooty amorphous ground only to be swallowed up, subsumed and re-formed in a style of animation that renders the process of its own production materially evident,visible,factual. The procedure, one that kentridge describes as ‘stone-age film-making’, is at once lengthy and physical. It involves what the artists calls ‘stalking the drawing’, the spatial action of walking backwards and forwards between the metamorphosis of the charcoal drawing and the movie camera that tracks these changes’
    The drawings that are left behind from this process are fascinating and read like a palimpsest or mystic writing pad. A must for students to explore.

  • I recently saw an exhibition of Donald Judd’s drawings at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh. On display were three distinct groups of drawings. Firstly, there were private studio drawings that he did to work out ideas. Then there were fabricator’s drawings from the technicians he worked with. The later ones were ‘portraits’ of his sculptures, often done years after the sculptures had been made. It was interesting to see drawing used for different ends.

  • just a quick note to let you know that there are two new drawing courses about to be released; the first of these is aimed at pre-degree students (without credits) while the second, Drawing 2, is aimed at more experienced students. Both of these focus on experimental aspects of drawing as discussed above, and will compliment the more technically focussed approach of the existing Drawing 1 course

  • As a Drawing One student from the Highlands, I was delighted to be in the right place at the right time to visit the Mantegna to Matisse Exhibition this week. It was a luxury to be able to access so many wonderful drawings in one place. I think the juxtoposition of contrasting artists which Jim Cowan describes was exciting. Equally though, I think the exhibition stopped at the right point i.e. leaving you wanting more. The Courtauld Gallery comes with a bank balance health warning though. It has one of the best gallery shops I have seen!
    For those who can reach Orkney, the Piers Arts Centre in Stromness mentioned by Olivia above is a lovely little gallery in a stunning setting with a good selection of works of interest to drawing students.

  • I agree with you that the Pier Arts Centre is stunning. I have only been there once and was lucky enough to coincide with a visiting Printmakers show. The collection is fabulous, as are the views from the window.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to blog listings