October 18, 2007

Traveling Yale exhibit gets Smart

If you have been trying to guess which masters reside in Yale University’s drawings collection, or have envisioned the Smart Museum’s gallery walls hung heavy with Albrecht Dürers, Rembrandts, or even a Leonardo da Vinci cartoon, you will be disappointed. If you need your old master fix, catch the Metra and head downtown—I hear the Art Institute has one or two. However, if you decide to stay on campus, which you should, the Smart has something to offer this quarter.

The Yale University Art Gallery is well known for its European and American paintings and decorative arts collections—less so for its European drawings. The exhibition Master Drawings from the Yale University Art Gallery, currently housed at the Smart Museum, aims to fix that. The full-bodied visiting exhibition comprises 84 master drawings from the Yale University Art Gallery—I counted.

While Yale does not hold drawings from the key geniuses in European draftsmanship, it does have its own geniuses. Try Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Guernico, Jacob Jordaens, Claude Lorrain, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Federico Zuccaro.

The exhibition was conceived by Yale Art Gallery curators Suzanne Boorsch and John Marciari. As the museum began an extensive $44-million renovation of its building—a masterwork in itself by architect Louis Kahn—it was decided, in the hopes of further scholarship, that a group of drawings representative of the university’s collection would tour the country.

As such, the exhibition is not simply the crème de la crème of their drawings, alas, but rather a dip into their collection of 1,500 European masterwork drawings—a substantial holding roughly comparable to that of nearby peer institution RISD Art Museum, but eclipsed by Harvard Art Museum’s massive works-on-paper collection.

They include not only studies for paintings but also preparatory works for prints, stained glass, tapestries, and embroideries in various stages of the creative process. Some sheets are stunning, others banausic, but all are worthwhile. The drawings range from the late 15th century to the mid-19th century and cover nearly every artistic movement in between. The exhibition is organized chronologically, perhaps so as not to give the discriminating dilettante the option of bypassing an entire embroidery section altogether.

Diego López de Escuriaz’s “The Last Supper” (ca. 1589), an uninspired embroidery design for the hood of a liturgical cope, fails to compete next to its star neighbor, Federico Zuccaro’s “Redeemed Souls and Allegorical Figures” (1575–1576). This large Zuccaro drawing for an important civic project, nothing less than the fresco of the inside face of Filippo Brunelleschi’s great dome of the Cathedral of Florence, is the largest surviving sheet from the commission. Zuccaro, who ran his own school dedicated to drawing, demonstrates his skill with a bravura composition.

One of the charms of this exhibition is the great variety of preparatory works from Escuriaz—who does not have a Wikipedia entry—to the great Zuccaro. Many treasures seldom received for scholarly and public attention can be enjoyed with a sense of discovery.

I will avoid getting my feet wet in the polemical debate on the encumbrance or value of labels in museums; suffice to say that the exhibition is text heavy—but considering its transfer from one teaching institution to another, it is hardly surprising.

Besides, who does not want to learn Edgar Degas’s delightful impression of his sitter and cousin, Gulia Bellelli? “I have two little cousins, good enough to eat. The little one [Gulia] has a spirit like a devil and goodness like a little angel. I draw them with their black dresses and little white pinafores, which suit them ravishingly.”

Degas’s drawing “Portrait of Gulia Bellelli” (ca. 1858–1859), is one of numerous drawn portrait studies of his Italian relatives. The drawings culminated eight years later in Degas’s first masterpiece, “Portrait of the Bellelli Family,” a painting that now resides at the Musée d’Orsay.

The traveling exhibition’s final venue will be the newly renovated Yale Art Gallery in early February. After hanging beneath Kahn’s tetrahedron ceiling, the drawings will disappear back into collections management, away from harmful light and friendly eyes, and before some scholar—perhaps from the University of Chicago—can bring them to new light.