Normally the San Francisco Bay Area is not blessed by a plethora of artistic old master riches. But currently, we have two lovely exhibits which show the viewer more of the depth and breath of pre-modern Western Art. First, we have the choice pieces from Scotland’s National Museums, now ending a long stay at the de Young. Botticelli, El Greco, Rembrandt, Titian – the justifiably famous names of Western art are all on display.
Now masterworks from the 15th through the 20th centuries—accompanied by new research and fresh insights—are on view at the Cantor Arts Center. “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum” show the foundation of Western artistic practice through drawings which are still fresh and compelling, 500 years after the artists first put pencil to paper.
Organized by theme, the show exhibits a broad spectrum of works, ranging from the early Renaissance to early Modernism. In the 21st century, drawing has taken 3rd or even 4th place in the discipline of art. That was not the case in earlier eras – as this exhibit proves. The focus is on the human figure, the conveyer of emotion both political and personal. An artist was not considered a “real artist” unless he (and all the artists in the exhibit are male) could draw the human figure with consummate skill.
This major traveling exhibition features rarely seen highlights by such artists as Michelangelo, Barocci, Bernini, Carpaccio, Annibale Carracci, Guercino, Modigliani, Parmigianino, Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese.
Among the artists on display, Bernini stands out. The greatest sculptor of the Baroque, he turns out to be one of the greatest draftsmen as well . He was the chief architect of St. Peters on Rome, worked for five popes, designed the Baldaccino that stands over the high altar. He built four of Rome’s most famous fountains and dozens of marble statues and, at one point, was deeply involved in a tempestuous love affair which left his lover, thanks to Bernini’s jealous rage, scarred for life. One wonders how he had the time to draw as well.
Tiepolo and Guercino were renowned as virtuoso draftsmen during their lifetimes. Each had fallen out of favor by the early twentieth century, when collectors like Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895, took advantage of their relative affordability and purchased large numbers of their drawings. The selection at the Cantor is a master lesson on how these artists worked out their ideas on paper.
Many of the drawings have benefited from the use of new technology, here put to good use, to discover the correct attribution, iconography, date, function and provenance of pieces formerly classified as “by an unknown artist.” Among the noteworthy findings is the discovery, first made in the 1990s, of an architectural sketch by Michelangelo on the reverse side of a study of heads that had been tentatively associated with the artist. The ground plan for an unrealized chapel was revealed through the use of new x-ray technology.
Several of the insights in the exhibition derive from the pairings that show how artists copied from the masters as a way of learning. In fact, copying masterpieces was one of the primary learning tools until the middle of the 20th century.
The pairings also emphasize the relationship of drawing to prints, prints being the first mass-produced images widely circulated. Further, the pairings illustrate the ill will that sometimes ensued in the “culture of copying.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
Connie Wolf, the Cantor’s John & Jill Freidenrich Director, says, “This extraordinary exhibition underlines how important university art museums are—how deep they can go with their collections and their scholarship and how dedicated they are to sharing their resources with students, faculty, and the public across the country, if not the world. We are thrilled that our partnership with the Princeton University Art Museum will allow our visitors to see this very special exhibition.”
A fully illustrated catalogue, “Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum, ” accompanies the exhibition. The catalogue is authored and edited by Laura Giles, the Heather and Paul G. Haaga, Jr. (Princeton, ’70) Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Princeton University Art Museum.