Last week the Morgan Library and Museum opened their first fall exhibit featuring 100 drawings by almost as many artists, all on loan from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, or State Graphic Collection in Munich, Germany. This new exhibit was made possible by an agreement between the two institutions – in 2008 the Morgan sent 100 drawings in their collection to the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung as a part of its 250th anniversary celebration. Four years later, 100 drawings from Munich have made their way across the ocean to create Durer to de Kooning, an exhibit that fills both the East and West Morgan Stanley Galleries.
The West Gallery is where the exhibit begins, housing 62 master drawings from the 15th-19th centuries, the room contains rough sketches and finished drawings by everyone from Michelangelo and Raphael to Annibale Carracci and Titian. The works move somewhat chronologically through the different regions of Europe until finally arriving in Germany, the same country this collection calls home. The walls are painted a pale shade of green that complements the dark wood of the floor and oversized doors at least 10 feet high that open up into the space. Each drawing is matted in off-white and hung in identical slender wooden frames – a very no nonsense approach that draws attention to the fact that many of these works were never meant to be displayed as autonomous works of art.
Beginning at the High Renaissance in Italy, the artists represented are instantly recognizable, to the point where it seems as if some pieces were chosen based on name alone. The drawing by Leonardo da Vinci seems a little out of place – it looks like it came straight from an engineer’s notebook and all the pieces surrounding it are sketches of religious scenes. Still, the names are impressive, and being able to see the actual handwriting and sketches of all these ancient artistic masters feels more intimate than standing before finished portraits and paintings. A few of the works have placards that even include an image of the finished painting, revealing the artist’s thought process as he worked out compositional arrangements and the orientation of the figures.
After moving into Mannerism style in 16th century Italy, consisting of more scenes of saints and architectural drawings, a turn around a corner signals the move to the Netherlands, Dutch, and Flemmish works. In the center of the back wall sits a very commanding equestrian portrait study for the “Duke of Lerma” by Peter Paul Rubens. Commissioned while Rubens was on a diplomatic mission to the Spanish court, the Duke of Lerma had recently been appointed commander in chief of the Spanish Calvary. The face on the sketch differs from the one in the finished portrait because Lerma likely didn’t sit for Rubens since this drawing was probably submitted for his approval prior to a sitting and the actual beginning of the commission. The face here was copied from a print of the English King Charles V, completed in pen and brown ink with black chalk and brown wash in 1603 – the largest sheet ever drawn by Rubens.
Rounding the next corner wraps up the room in German drawings, beginning with a very influential work by Matthias Grunewald: “Study of a Woman with Her Head Raised in Prayer.” Curator Jennifer Tonkovich said he “uses chalk to have this very matronly effect on this devout woman,” and continued to stress how versatile and unique the medium of drawing can be throughout the tour of the exhibit. The Old Masters side finishes with a number of impressive larger works of ceilings and studies for buildings; some so finished they’re intended for printmaking.
Across the marble divide between the rooms, a sort of grand entryway that holds a chair and table with exhibition catelogues, plus two introductory pieces to the show: one for the Old Masters by Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Italia and Germania from 1815, and the other is Sigmar Polke’s “Potato Heads: Nixon and Khrushchev” from 1965. Tonkovich drew a connection to the current ongoing presidential and vice presidential debates when this work was introduced.
The room opposite the Old Masters, labeled 19th-Century and Modern held the remaining 36 drawings in a completely open room that differs in wall color as well, here painted grey instead of green. The drawings are larger for the most part – some even seem aware of being showcased as artwork on its own, rather than personal scribbles or studies. Beginning in more naturalistically drawn German works, Torkovich said that the center of the room marks the newfound desire to approach art with fresh ideas and spontaneity, and the works begin to move away from realistic renderings to interpretations and conceptions.
The works become increasingly abstracted as around the room they move, somewhat chronologically, from scenes to figures to abstract figures and finally just abstract markings. You can almost see the figures break up and dissolve across the room, and it seems as if at some point the required detail, and skill for each work seems to fall off a cliff and we’re left with Michael Heizer’s “Landscape” – just lines across the paper – and ending at Arnulf Rainer’s 1978 work “Adalbert Stifter (Death Mask),” which indeed looks profound but I tend to discount artistic ability because it’s just ink and gouache over a photograph. It features the death mask of Austrian author and artist Aladbert Stifter, and the feverish lines and scratches surrounding his face represent his inner emotion and separate the photograph from the surrounding white like it’s the surface of something; as if he’s coming up for air.
The abstraction of the 19th-Century and Modern wing compared to the straightforward studies in Old Masters suited each space well. The Old Masters room was divided geometrically, with a clear beginning marked by the exhibition’s title. The 19th-Century and Modern gallery was open and exposed, a simple ring of drawings surrounding two wooden benches – you could do the circle whichever way and start wherever. Overall these 100 drawings from the Staaliche Graphische Sammlung are an impressive representative of their collection, featuring so many famous artists and contrasting the two halves of work accordingly. It’s an introduction to a gallery you’d otherwise never know about, and a snapshot of chronologically collected drawings by nearly every artist I’ve ever heard of.
Duer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings From Munich
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
Through January 6, 2013
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Aschaffenberg 1880 – 1938 Frauenkirch) Nude Girl in the Interior (Fränzi?), around 1910
Inv. No. 1978:1 Z
17.7 x 13.8 inches (450 x 350 mm) Frame Dims: 27 x 20.6 x 1.75 inches
Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470/80 – 1528 Halle an der Saale) Study of a Woman with her Head Raised in Prayer
Verso: Study of a Bereaved Woman
Charcoal, partially stumped in some areas
Inv.-Nr. 1983:85 Z
15.4 x 11.8 inches (390 x 299 mm) Frame Dims: 30 x 25 x 1.75 inches
Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Cartaro 1431 – 1506 Mantua)
Dancing Muse, ca. 1495
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white gouache, over Spolvero dots on brown- gray prepared paper
Inv.-Nr. 3066 Z
20.8 x 10.3 inches (527 x 261 mm) Frame Dims: 30 x 25 x 1.75 inches