5:05 pm Oct. 12, 2012
In The Arcades Project, a collection of writings about 19th-century Paris, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin defined two key notions in his thought, the “trace” and the “aura.” The first he described as “the appearance of a nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be,” while the latter for him was “the appearance of a distance, however close the thing that calls it forth.”
Benjamin used those terms in shifting and even contradictory ways, and scholars go on (and on) debating their meaning. Still, they offer a useful framework for thinking about two overpowering exhibitions now on view in New York: Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich at the Morgan Library & Museum (through Jan. 6, 2013) and Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery at the Frick Collection (through Jan. 27, 2013).
Both shows merit repeated visits. Many of the 58 drawings at the Frick are on view in New York for the first time, and none of the 100 works at the Morgan has been shown in the United States before. Drawn from two of the world’s great collections, London’s Courtauld Gallery and Munich’s Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, the exhibitions inspire awe. Both encompass works by the Italian and Northern European Old Masters (including Mantegna, Dürer, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt). In addition, the Frick show gives prominence to English and French artists from the 18th and 19th centuries, while the Morgan exhibit highlights exuberant drawings in the Bavarian Rococo style along with works from the late 20th century.
Benjamin’s trace and aura come to mind in the presence of Jacopo Pontormo’s Seated Youth (c. 1520) at the Frick. The drawing’s putative subject (a garzone or boy apprentice), the workaday blots and splashes that mottle the paper, and the artist’s fluid, confident strokes of black chalk and on-the-fly redrafting of the child’s right arm seem to take us back to the Tuscan master’s studio in all its under-the-hood materiality.
All the same, the longer and more knowingly we observe the Seated Youth (pictured above), the less it seems an unmediated slice of life. The boy’s gaping eyes pull us into his morass of dread, though the terror from which he recoils remains a mystery. What’s more, the drawing apparently riffs on a figure in Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens (thought to depict Michelangelo in the guise of Heraclitus) that in turn was inspired by the famous Belvedere Torso. At first glance unstudied, Pontormo’s drawing instead ushers us into a labyrinth of artistic rivalries and conceptual entanglements that distances us still further from those droplets that had seemed traces of a master’s workshop come as messengers across time.
The swirls, areas of forcefully applied red chalk, and many alterations in Pontormo’s Two Standing Women (c. 1530, pictured above, at far left) at the Morgan summon up the artist’s hand even as the enigmatic figures (possibly studies for a Visitation) retreat into their inwardness.
The Frick show features two towering works. The Dream by Michelangelo (c. 1533, pictured above second from left) may be one of the earliest drawings wrought as an independent work of art. He likely made it for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young nobleman he loved, whose erudite friends held forth on its allegory of the soul awakened from the deceptions of earthly life (represented by the masks in the box under the central nude) and enjoined to shun vice (embodied by the figures clustered in the background). A powerful aura emanates from The Dream. A relic from a creator judged singular and “divine” by his peers and posterity, it mesmerizes viewers even as its underlying ideas clash with our modern ways of thinking. Peter Paul Rubens’ Helena Fourment (c. 1630, pictured at left), a portrait of the artist’s young second wife, may have been displayed in his studio as a sample of his work. Here we encounter pure wizardry—chalk on paper become dewy skin, lustrous eyes, and a pillowy hand—and what Benjamin saw as “the melancholy, incomparable beauty” of “the fleeting expression of a human face.”
The arrangement of drawings in the shows gives rise to intriguing narratives and crosscurrents. At the Morgan, the lush, animate forest in Huon and Amanda with the Hermit Alfonso (1798–99) by the Tyrolean artist Joseph Anton Koch could do nicely as a backdrop for the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings sagas. Caspar David Friedrich’s glowing Bridge over the Elbe (c. 1816), instead, is eerily still and numinous.
But the scorched trees, clotted blood, and splattered innards in Duck Pond (1964) by Georg Baselitz show a landscape abandoned by the gods and wrecked by human depravity. Arnulf Rainer’s scratched and pitted Death Mask (1978) and Tintoretto’s Roman Head (1540s) offer contrasting visions of mortality and craft. At the Frick, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed (c. 1896), rendered with exhilarating freedom, and Rembrandt’s Saskia Sitting Up in Bed, Holding a Child (c. 1635, pictured above, second from right) both depict women at intimate moments—one an urban prostitute, the other a sturdy, dutiful wife extending the family line.
Further treasures abound: a page from one of Leonardo’s notebooks on which he works out a mechanism for processing gold (Morgan); apprentice sketches by the young Dürer (Frick) and Michelangelo (Morgan); landscapes by Emil Nolde (Morgan), Claude Lorrain, and J.M.W. Turner (both Frick); and dozens of other remarkable works. In the coming months, both institutions will offer lectures, gallery talks, and other programs related to these shows. Above all, do not miss the opportunity to stand in the presence of greatness and ponder distances of outlook and time.
‘Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich’ at the Morgan Library & Museum and ‘Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery’ at the Frick Collection are both open now and run, respectively, through January 6 and January 27, 2013. Admission, hours, and other information at www.themorgan.org and www.frick.org.
More by this author:
- A Pasolini series at MoMA provides occasion to revisit the principled, prolific filmmaker
- A rare chance to contemplate Renaissance painter Rosso Fiorentino at The Morgan