Saturday, 21 November 2015

Yes, They Drew

Yesterday I managed to make it to Oxford (having failed in an earlier attempt) to see the exhibition of Venetian drawings at the Ashmolean, and I'm glad I did. Titian to Canaletto: Drawing in Venice is quite an important exhibition, not only in assembling many works that have never been shown together - and some that have never been exhibited before - but in roundly refuting an old calumny: that the Venetians didn't bother much with drawing. According to the Florentine Vasari - and, later, Sir Joshua Reynolds - the Venetians were so besotted with colour and set such low value on drawing that they barely practised the art, preferring to paint straight onto the canvas without preparatory drawing. Anyone who had seen the fine collection of Venetian drawings at the Uffizi (or several others) would have known this was nonsense, and yet it remained the received wisdom. Well, it won't be any more.
 The Ashmolean demonstrates clearly that the Venetians valued drawing very highly, not only using preparatory drawings for paintings but also making drawings as reference material and as works of art in themselves. Learning to draw was an essential part of an artist's training in Venice, as it was everywhere else, and the family workshop system expanded into academies where drawing - from life and from artefacts and examples - was the basis of study. Meanwhile, from early in the 16th century, highly finished drawings were made as a cheaper substitute for paintings and as a basis for printmaking - and collectors bought them.
 As you might have gathered, this is an exhibition with a message (which it puts across very effectively and digestibly), but it contains things of great intrinsic beauty. Among them is the exquisite Titian Study of a Young Woman above, a superb example of the expressiveness, depth and subtle tonalities the Venetians could achieve with chalks (often wetted) on paper (originally blue, now faded to beige and brown). There are other striking portrait heads, including a strong Bellini, a typically moody Lotto and a brilliant Tintoretto head of Giuliano de' Medici. The drawing as a finished work of art reached its Venetian peak with the works of Piazzetta, who is represented by a handful of magnificent works, including this life drawing and the Head of a Youth, who is the poster boy for this exhibition (below).
 Equally impressive are G.B. Tiepolo's wonderfully light and fluid pen and wash drawings, making even a grisly martyrdom into something lovely, and it was a special treat for me, as a fan, to see a couple of drawings by his son Giandomenico. Talking of fluid pen and wash drawings, there's a lovely one of A Venetian Cloister by Guardi, with whom - and with Canaletto - this richly rewarding exhibition ends.


  1. Piazzetta's boys head is superb, catches that inquisitive yet apprehensive look of the young.
    Vasari may have had one eye on the main chance whilst writing on art, indeed it did lead to a nice little patronage from Cosimo 1, he may have thought 'best not pump up the competition.' While obviously Lives is an extremely important work, it does have some oddities and the omission of a chapter on Masolino and Filippino Lippi is one of them. Responsible, with Masaccio and Filippo Lippi's son Filippino, for the St Peter frescos in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine's Brancacci chapel, one of the greatest Florentine treasures. Although it was Masaccio who painted the expulsion from paradise, regarded by many as the greatest expression of human anguish, both Lippi and Masolino's contribution were of equal importance, both were worth inclusion.

  2. Absolutely Malty - Vasari is such a dodgy source in all sorts of ways, but there's so little else... If only Venice had had its Vasari!