A brief review of Princeton’s 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings exhibition which I saw last February. I didn’t initially plan on writing about this but I’ve ended up thinking about it more than I expected to.
This was an exhibition about craft and process rather than the final productions. Most of the items on display are either plans for sculptures and paintings or sketches and studies of things being observed. In both cases, these drawings are the first step which takes us from observing and thinking to making and understanding. These drawings are what make all the other arts possible.
They’re wonderful. Besides the linework and technical skill, there is so much gesture and life in these since they are sketches rather than renderings. I’m also a total sucker for drawings using both dark and white pigments on medium-tone paper. Looking at these makes me want to start drawing again.
I ended up thinking about this exhibition more than I expected because I started wondering when these drawings became considered art in their own right. I’ve seen other exhibitions about process but none with pieces as old as these. My understanding from the wall text is that these were collected by specific people even at the time—suggesting that most people would have seen these as process documents only.
This is something I’ve wondered off and on about for a while whenever I see “unfinished” work in museums—especially now since we’ve thoroughly absorbed both the concepts of ruin value and wabi-sabi into a lot of modern art. Things don’t have to be finished perfectly to be complete. Nor do they have to be preserved intact in order to stay complete. And while neither of these is a modern idea, the concepts do seem to have made it into museums relatively recently compared to the age of some of these pieces.
Before Rodin, how were fragments and unfinished pieces like Michelangelo’s Slaves presented? Were they just examples of the artist’s working practice and a way for us to learn how things were made? Or have they always been viewable as complete pieces, finished in their own way.
I’m not enough of an academic to be able to answer this. But whenever I see exhibitions like this where process documents are being displayed as art in their own right, I’ll keep looking and reading and trying to get a better understanding of how it works and when we started seeing them as something more than just a step in the design of something else.