By Hugo Chapman with Charlotte Jusinski
With the opening of The birth, death and resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo, a traveling exhibition of works on paper from the British Museum on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art through April 19, New Mexicans are offered a rare glimpse deep into one of the most prestigious collections of devotional art on the planet. But beyond depictions of the life of the Messiah, the works included therein also contain immeasurable information about the history of art-making worldwide, as well as an opportunity to gaze inward at the human condition.
The selection of the works in the show was made by me and my colleague Sarah Vowles, the Hamish Swanston curator of Italian and French prints and drawings at the British Museum. Together we devised the theme and then had the fun of going through the boxes of Italian prints and drawings, making our picks.
We wanted to show off the richness and breadth of our Italian collection, one of the best in the world, hence our desire to include works by some of the greatest names of art history. The exhibition features works from the likes of Michelangelo, Parmigianino, and Giambattista Tiepolo, but also great examples by lesser-known names, such as the earliest drawing in the exhibition: Parri Spinelli, an artist from Arezzo in Tuscany working in the first half of the 1400s.
The selection that Sarah and I made was specifically designed for a Catholic audience in mind who we knew would be very familiar with the Biblical stories in the works. This was exciting for us, as such knowledge cannot be taken for granted in the much more secular and less religiously knowledgeable viewers in the UK. We felt confident that in San Diego and Santa Fe, the show’s viewers will appreciate and pick up the different ways that artists across the centuries have variously recounted these episodes from Christ’s life.
At the same time, because these prints and drawings are small and intimate, they often allowed artists to be more personal in their expression of faith. An example of that is the little-known Florentine sixteenth-century artist Jacone’s The Lamentation drawing. This is so extreme and outlandish in the rendering and proportions of Christ’s broken body draped across the bony lap of his mother that it can never have been intended as a design for a finished public work. It is rather a personal articulation of his religious feelings. As with so many of the works, the intimacy of drawing allows us into the private emotional sphere of the artist in a way that is rarely encountered in the greater formality and fixedness of the final work.
Further, most drawings were never intended to be seen outside the confines of the artistic studio, as they were working tools in the development of a finished work in paint or stone. We know from Michelangelo’s letters that he was extremely secretive about his drawings, and he would have likely been appalled by the thought that his thinking on paper—his red chalk The Three Crosses study from the first part of the 1520s—was exhibited for all to see.
As drawings were not intended to be seen outside the studio, they were very rarely signed. As such, it is rare that we can be perfectly certain of their authorship. That said, akin to our ability to recognize the handwriting of our parents and partners on a note or envelope without the need of a signature, the identities of artists can be deduced from building up a picture of how they went about making a drawing. In some cases, drawings can be linked to figures or compositions in surviving works, as for example with the powerful red chalk study for the suspended figure of Christ from the mid-1570s by Giacomo Rocca related to the artist’s fresco of the Deposition in a Roman church. The identification of an artist’s style of drawing, as discerned in the way that he or she draws a contour or adds shading, is in the end very subjective, as much of it depends on an assessment of quality and touch.
In the case of the study by Michelangelo, one of the most contested artists as some scholars have historically sought to cut down the number of drawings while others have been more expansive, I feel confident that the piece included herein is by him. The sheet is so alive and full of movement, and the geometric simplification of the figures beneath the cross is so like the shorthand style he learned from his time in the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. But others may disagree, and for me that lack of certainty is one of the attractions of looking at drawings. It encourages all of us to look at the works with an analytical and questioning gaze, and to be skeptical of authority. Just because I or Sarah think the work is by Michelangelo does not make it so, and it is unlikely there will ever be definitive, iron-clad proof—so I invite everyone to come and take a look at it and make up their own minds.
Tracing the manner of expression of the works within the exhibition, there is most definitely a discernible shift in the show as the battle for the Catholic church to fight off the rise of Protestantism from the 1520s onwards can be felt in the greater emotiveness and dramatic force in the telling of Christ’s life. For example, the quiet piety of the figures in the early-1500s The Adoration of Christ by an artist in the circle of Pietro Perugino is transformed into a scene of mystery and wonder, with light pouring from the newborn Infant Christ, in both Carlo Maratti’s nocturnal rendering of the scene from the 1650s, a study for a painting in a chapel in Rome, and in the Genoese artist Gregorio de’Ferrari’s no less dramatic version of the scene from around fifteen years later (The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Nativity, respectively).
That said, the subjects of all three works are based on the same Biblical accounts of Christ’s birth but interpreted in different ways. The fascination of the show is how artists over the centuries kept finding new nuances of visual storytelling to bring out different aspects of the narratives.
Even beyond the stories depicted in these works about the life of Christ, there is much to learn about the innerworkings of European art at large through the works selected. The artistic training that normally began in Italy around the age of 12 was rooted in drawing from a live male model, clothed and unclothed, so by the time that the artists reached maturity they had a huge mental image bank and lots of sketch books filled with such studies.
As a result of years of figure drawing, most artists had the facility to draw figures without the need of a model, while also being able to manipulate freely the poses of figures that were in front of them. It is therefore very hard to be sure when an artist is drawing from life, but I would guess that the specificity of the lighting of the figure in Camillo Procaccini’s red and black chalk study A shepherd playing bagpipes is indicative of him having someone adopt the pose of the bagpiper he wanted for his painting.
But live models could only hold poses for so long without moving, and in the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s very detailed study of light falling on the folds of a drapery, he most likely draped the material dipped in wax or liquid clay (to ensure that the folds did not move once arranged) over a small wooden lay figure, the like of which can still be found in artist’s studios. The tubular shape of the model’s chest is the clue to his use of such an inanimate model.
Further, the very material upon which these pieces were created opens a glimpse into the history of civilization as we know it. The key material in the show is paper, as all but one of the works in the show are either drawn or printed on it. The technology of papermaking spread from China via the Middle East and into western Europe through the Arabic conquest of Spain in the eleventh century. In China, paper was made with the pulp from tree bark, but in Europe the base material was hemp or linen, obtained from old clothes, rags, worn sails, and ropes.
The plant fibers of hemp and linen would be mixed with water in vats into which the papermaker would dip a metal wire mold. The skill of a papermaker was to scoop up a thin and even layer of this aqueous porridge-like mixture. This thin layer was then deposited by the papermaker’s assistant on sheets of felt, which absorbed the excess water. Sheet after sheet of this pulpy mixture was piled up between layers of felt, which were then put in a press to squeeze out even more water. The paper was then hung up to dry, like washing on a line, and when that was finished each sheet was brushed over with a gluey mixture, known as size, so that it held the ink or watercolor on the surface on the paper (without it the paper would be as absorbent as blotting paper).
Although artists could and did draw before the spread of papermaking in Italy in the 1400s, the high cost of working on parchment or vellum (the treated skins of sheep or goats) must have been a deterrent to exploring ideas. So not unlike the way that digital cameras fitted in our mobile phones have opened up image-making to everyone, the rise of papermaking in the 1400s and 1500s allowed artists to experiment more freely and with greater frequency.
Without paper, another technological innovation invented by the Chinese, the printing press (which in Europe started in Germany in the mid-1400s), would not have taken hold and spread so fast. Paper is so ubiquitous today (in defiance of claims that computers and digital devices would push us towards relinquishing it) that it requires considerable powers of imagination to realize what a truly revolutionary material it is. Without paper, the ideas expressed in books and the artistic images that articulated and elaborated them would not have spread so widely, and would not have made such an impact on how the world is today.
If visitors leave the exhibition with nothing more than a new appreciation of the historical importance of paper, it will have succeeded. But as head of a British Museum department that has well over two million pieces of paper in it, I am perhaps a little biased in its favor.
After these pieces leave Santa Fe, theywill return to their boxes and be visible only when requested by visitors to the Prints and Drawings Study Room in the British Museum, a wonderful room dating from the early 1900s filled with mahogany cases packed with works on paper which I warmly invite you all to come and see. It is open by appointment, so a little prior notice is required, but it is worthwhile, as the treasures of our collection are open to all—from great drawings by old and modern masters from Raphael to Ruscha, to satirical prints by Gillray and Rowlandson, and much else … including the world’s most sought-after baseball card, Honus Wagner.
As works on paper are light-sensitive, especially those in pen and wash, some of the drawings may not be lent again for many years, and certainly the combination of works found in Santa Fe is unlikely ever to be reassembled. The phrase “once in a lifetime” is a well-worn one in promoting exhibitions, but in the case of works-on-paper shows, it is accurate: Once the works have returned home, they won’t ever come out again in the same configuration.
Even if a visitor to the show has no religious beliefs of any kind or comes to it from a different faith, the humanity of the works is universal. Through them we can feel the joy and surge of love felt by Mary and Joseph at the sight of their newborn son, and be touched by the anguish and pain felt by a mother cradling her adult son’s lifeless body.
The cycle of birth and death are core to the Christian story, and to all of humanity irrespective of their religious feelings. Time and time again, it is these themes that are explored in innovative and arresting ways in the works in the Santa Fe exhibition.
Hugo Chapman is the Simon Sainsbury keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum. Chapman joined the British Museum in 1995 as curator of Italian drawings. During his time as curator he has been involved in a number of monographic graphic exhibitions on Michelangelo, Parmigianino and Raphael, as well as broader surveys of drawing, including one on the greatest Italian fifteenth-century Renaissance drawings in the British Museum and the Uffizi in Florence and on silverpoint drawing. In 2011 he became head, or keeper, of the Prints and Drawings Department.