26 October, 2015Issue 29.2The ArtsVisual Arts

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Look Again

Fergus McGhee

Study of a Young Woman

Drawing in Venice: Titian to Canaletto
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
15 October – 10 January
£10 / £9 concession

Jenny Saville Drawing
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
15 October – 10 January
Free with ticket for Drawing in Venice


Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian (c. 1485 – 1576)
Study of a young woman
© Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence

In 1541, the Florentine painter Francesco Salviati flounced out of Venice. The city, he sniffed, was no place for a man with the slightest respect for drawing. It is fair to say that the cognoscenti have been sniffing ever since. The Venetian masters’ neglect of disegno is a truism of art history that owes much to Giorgio Vasari, Renaissance Florence’s foremost critic, biographer, and gossip. In his Lives of the Artists (1568), Vasari relates how Venetian painters like Giorgione and Pordenone, “who had never seen Rome or any completely perfect works of art”, had to “conceal, under the charm of colouring, their painful ignorance of drawing”. The Ashmolean’s enchanting and intellectually bold exhibition blows up the idea that no distinctive tradition of drawing existed in the lagoon city. The curator, Catherine Whistler, savours the irony that while Vasari and, later, Joshua Reynolds, were publicly bewailing the quality of Venetian drawing, they were cheerfully snapping up specimens for their private collections (some of which ended up in Oxford’s impressive hoard of Italian drawings). Likewise, there is poetic justice in the fact that around a third of the works on display come from the Uffizi, in Florence.

The story begins with Titian. As you enter the exhibition space you are brought face to face with the apparition of a young woman deep in thought, a soft and sensuous study in chalk that vibrates with mysterious life. Less friable than charcoal, chalk allows for smooth transitions of tone and varying widths of stroke. Smoggy greys and luxurious, velvety blacks melt into each other under the finely controlled pressure of the artist’s hand. Smudged and smirched by a judicious finger, the material snags in the grainy fibres of the paper and almost glisters under the light with the help of delicate white highlights. The effect must have been even more striking before the cool blue dye, an equable backdrop for this theatre of light and shade, had all but faded away. Titian’s graphic oeuvre is small, but the exhibition demonstrates that it was his rich pictorial approach that catalyzed the development of Venetian disegno.

Titian, of course, did not come from nowhere. The exhibition spins us back a generation with a stunning, highly finished portrait by Giovanni Bellini, black chalk lightly applied and gently wetted to create a vivid sense of plastic form. The decorative border announces that, like the Titian, this is an autonomous work of art. And it proves that, as early as 1500, artists in Venice were producing drawings for a market of collectors. Even drawings that started off life as pedagogical exercises—like the double-sided studies of bedraped men-about-town made by a student of Carpaccio—could end up in a collector’s album before long, framed by an elegant border and, in this case, a somewhat optimistic (not to say fraudulent) ascription to Bellini. The social lives of these drawings are laid bare by the inclusion in the exhibition of a large album that belonged to the great collector Carlo Ridolfi. And those works that seem most safely at a distance from the throbbing reality of sixteenth-century life, such as the nostalgic inky landscapes of Campagnola, nonetheless betray their historical moment: Campagnola’s sinuous, energetic strokes summon up the excitement around the new technology of printmaking as he seeks to emulate the visual effects of engravings.

Two studies of a bust of Vitellius

Studio of Jacopo Tintoretto (c. 1518 – 1594)
Two studies of a bust of Vitellius
© Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence; Christ Church Picture Gallery

More stimulating than these polished productions, however, are the many preparatory sketches and imaginative workouts, the studi and invenzioni, all blotted and blotched by life in the studio. Titian’s keenly observed study of a pair of muscular legs, for the figure of an executioner in his Martyrdom of St Lawrence, is drawn vigorously from the life, achieving a dramatic play of light and shadow and an eerily undecideable sense of what it is we are really looking at: now monumental fragment, now threatening human presence. Two studies of a jowly Roman bust from Tintoretto’s studio show how those alternatives could be conjured with different lighting conditions: one is blank-eyed and august, the light reflecting from its polished sculptural surface, while the other is caught almost unawares in an oblique plume of light, suddenly vulnerable. Tintoretto and his pupils experimented endlessly with illumination, suspending small wax or clay figurines in mini-theatres lit by candles; wonderfully, the exhibition recreates one of these for visitors to observe the interplay of light and shade for themselves (even if the candles have been replaced by health-and-safety-approved bulbs).

Tintoretto’s own drawings range from rhythmic compositional studies to passionate exercises in the emotional rhetoric of bodies and drapery. The earthiness of his materials creates a striking contrast with the ideal beauty of some of his subjects, such as Michelangelo’s figures in the Medici Chapel (of which he owned several models). These studies are imaginative responses rather than precise descriptions, but they are also teaching aids, part of the capital of the Tintoretto family workshop. We owe the survival of many of the drawings on display to their educational, rather than preparatory, function; Tintoretto’s grids prepare his studies for scaling up in paint, but they also invite the viewer (and the budding draughtsman) to abstract certain formal qualities, to attend to the subtleties of shadows and contours, to look again and look more closely this time. They remind us that we are not just looking at a figure, or a scene, but at an artist looking, whether with his outer or his inner eye. As we follow the movements of the artist’s hand, we share in his sense of discovery: Paris Bordon’s agitated revision of a fisherman’s legs, Veronese’s toying with idea after idea for an altarpiece, filling a sheet with figures till it teems like some frantic Last Judgement. There is something exhilarating about storming someone else’s brain.

Studies for the Coronation of the Virgin

Paolo Caliari, known as Veronese (1528 – 1588)
Studies for the Coronation of the Virgin
© Christ Church Picture Gallery

The seventeenth century is generally regarded as Venice’s artistic dark age, poised between the unrepeatable glories of the old masters and the extravagance and luminosity of the settecento. The exhibition challenges this assumption with some compelling works by Maffei, Zanchi, Ricci, and Fontebasso. If few drawings survive from this period it is partly due to the enormous premium placed by eighteenth-century connoisseurs on older work, although the supposition that Venetian artists went straight to work on canvas meant there was a lack of interest in preserving Venetian drawings more generally (General John Guise, who bequeathed his substantial collection to Christ Church, is a happy exception). In fact, more drawing was going on than ever before. In the previous century, disegno had come to signify not only draughtsmanship but also the artist’s wider imaginative conception. Technical skill thus gained an intellectual gloss as part of the humanist elevation of painting from a merely “mechanical” art into one that might compete with literature in exploring and perfecting the deepest of human aspirations. This also cleared the way for drawing to be seen as a gentlemanly accomplishment, an idea that had reached England by the time of Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman (1634). Drawing manuals produced in Venice at this time catered to a growing class of amateurs, while informal accademie hosted life-drawing classes attended by serious artists and dilletanti alike. Venice may not have had an official Accademia until 1750, but as Whistler argues, this had more to do with the conservatism of the Venetian state than any sudden change in the status of drawing. Family workshops, from the Bassanos to the Tiepolos, were the channels through which expertise flowed down the generations.

The most famous teacher in eighteenth-century Venice was Piazzetta, whose studio particularly attracted artists interested in life drawing. Shortly before he died, Piazzetta was appointed the first director of the Accademia: fitting, because he had a more academic turn of mind than his contemporaries. The drawings of his on display are triumphs of rigour and lucidity. But they possess distinctively Venetian qualities, too: sensuous tonality, crumbly black chalk or charcoal lit with white on blue paper. It is not just the body of his male nude that is defined by chiaroscuro—a shadowy aura enfolds him, an emblem of introversion.

Standing youth seen from behind

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682 – 1754)
Standing youth seen from behind
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Tiepolo’s art is more exuberant, a never-ending festival of light with the paradoxical power to disorientate and disturb. The exhibition only hints at his tireless inventiveness, but it does convey something of his panache. Tiepolo’s drawings forego any attempt at illusionism, instead boldly proclaiming their graphic—almost stenographic—qualities. A few squiggly strokes of the pen, the odd brush of wash, and the Holy Family rises before you, or rather above you. Visionary figures are suspended untouchably in space, their semi-closed eyes, and the blankness of the background, giving an impression of dazzling light. The Madonna drops her gaze on us from a devastating height: she’s the Queen of Heaven and she knows it. The exhibition also includes a witty frontispiece designed for the flourishing Venetian publishing business—ready money, and good advertising.

Canaletto had his own dedicated publicity machine in the shape of Joseph Smith, even if the Englishman got rather more out of the deal (he sold his Canalettos to George III for a fortune in 1762). With Smith’s commercial assistance, Canaletto turned out endless vedute for Grand Tourists, the products of endlessly patient study of light and perspective. Wiggles of ink capture the gentle undulation of the water and the sizzling humidity of the air. Guardi’s pen and wash drawing of a palazzo garden has an equally plein air feel, a vast lacustrine sky hanging over an elegant parterre evoked by squirming, calligraphic lines. Guardi’s Venice, as Giorgio Marini puts it in the excellent catalogue, is all “blissful unawareness” in the face of imminent catastrophe. The city’s rising generation—figures like Piranesi and Canova—would make their careers in Rome.

Lagoon view with the island of San Michele

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697 – 1768)
Lagoon view with the island of San Michele
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In dialogue with the Venetian exhibit is a display of drawings by the contemporary artist Jenny Saville. Saville has been associated with the “Young British Artists” patronized by Charles Saatchi since the early 1990s, but don’t let that put you off. These are intelligent, strangely compelling works that have absorbed the formal and emotional fluidity of the Venetian tradition and interrogate that tradition in immensely suggestive ways. Her anatomical nightmares, with their wild profusion of impossible body parts, point us to the grotesque regions of the Venetian imagination that so fascinated Ruskin (evident in Pietro Liberi’s mesmerizing study of a mass fisticuffs), while her palimpsests of strokes are as supple, robust, and disquieting as those from Tintoretto’s studio, even if their enormous scale tends to disperse their energy. Such drawings open our eyes to the nervous animation to be savoured in the Venetians’ furious pentimenti, as in Ricci’s whirlwind study of two struggling figures.

But it is Saville’s pursuit of tonal expressiveness that is most memorable, and most alla veneziana, prompting the thought that perhaps the old clichés are only half-wrong. This exhibition explodes the assumption that Venice lacked disegno, but it also confirms the traditional corollary—that it excelled in colorito. In a hundred different ways, it spells out the canny observation of one seventeenth-century visitor: that “when a Venetian is drawing, he is already painting.”

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.