Renaissance and Baroque etchings not much of a draw

As I turned my gaze from one red chalk drawing to another at Drawn to Drawings, the newest exhibition at the Art Institute, I was surprised to find someone talking to me.

By Elizabeth Goetz

As I turned my gaze from one red chalk drawing to another at Drawn to Drawings, the newest exhibition at the Art Institute, I was surprised to find someone talking to me. The sparse lighting and subtle, colorless drawings on display, and the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon meant that conversation tended to occur only among the bored guards. Nevertheless, my sport-coated colleague in art-viewing was in fact addressing me.

“Looks like he used skim milk for a fixative,” he decided aloud, as we both stared at a selection of red chalk works by Camillo Procaccini. I murmured my agreement, and he concluded his thoughts with, “That’s a nice…etching.” Perhaps not a very provocative conclusion, but there’s not much else you can say about Drawn to Drawings.

The exhibit is comprised of sketches and more polished works collected by Jean and Steven Goldman, with a focus on the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Italy. The Goldmans certainly aren’t dilettante collectors; Jean Goldman has a Ph.D. in Italian art history from this very University, and she teaches at the Art Institute. For whatever bizarre reason, though, these images aren’t integrated into any overarching narrative. No introductory paragraphs are stenciled onto the galleries’ walls. Connections are not often made between the various drawings in the texts of their accompanying plaques.

All of this isn’t to say that explanations and narratives are necessary for the appreciation of art, but it is good to have nudges in the right direction in order to think about what questions others are already asking and which of those are worthwhile. Modern art makes this questioning process easier because so often the piece is about the question. We look at a cobalt blue panel by Yves Klein, and we think, “Why did he make this?” But this question is less productive when applied to Renaissance portraits, landscapes, and religious art. The answer in these cases tends to be about a patron’s interesting face, a landscape as a study in the pastoral, or the religious devotion of the artist or his patron.

On the other hand, some of the sketches are quite appealing. White gouache highlighting makes Biagio Pupini’s 16th century work “The Adoration of the Magi” seems ethereal and fleeting. Mary and the wise men are outlined by the white gouache in places, as if making us question whether they’re really there. It’s a fine use of chiaroscuro. For this and especially for works depicting more obscure biblical scenes, the textual information provided by the curators is actually quite useful. The descriptive plaques do a better job than those in most exhibits at clearly identifying characters from Christianity and classical mythology, as well as summarizing the stories taken from those sources. Any curiosity regarding the minutia of the drawings’ subject is well satisfied.

I am also taken by the Bolognese Guido Reni’s “Head of a Bearded Man.” The sketch depicts a man’s face surrounded by circulating curls of his hair and beard, his eyes nearly closed, too preoccupied with headier matters to consider why he is being watched by artist and viewers. And this is precisely what makes him so attractive: his committed devotion to thought.

There are also some subtly humorous depictions of virtues personified. Best is a cartoonish Chastity figure created by the escaped monk-turned-artist Bernardo Strozzi. Strozzi ran away from his monastery to lead an artistic life in Venice, so difficult did he find his vows of abstinence. The exaggerated woman of virtue he presents to his viewers comically argues for the very celibate life Strozzi found so abhorrent.

But other works confuse the viewer, who cannot find any obvious reason for their presence. Is there something important in their subject matter or style too obscure for the weary eye to notice? Is there an art history background that sometimes minimal glosses fail to summarize? The presence of an anonymous plan for “Mosaic pavement from San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome,” exemplifies the lack of explanation that would give this exhibit a unified raison d’être. We don’t know the curators’ logic in including this piece. It’s far older than the other pieces, which are predominantly from the 16th and 17th centuries. Because of the piecemeal nature of mosaic creation, the plan is necessarily blocky, broad, and rudimentary. As such, it rather starkly contrasts with the grace of the rest of the works in the exhibit. And there are more thought-provoking works at other galleries in town, or even in some of the other rooms in the Art Institute. Go to them instead.