Exhibition review: Ink, Edinburgh

A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin
A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin
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The immediacy and simplicity of ink on paper is celebrated at the National Gallery with a wide-ranging and powerful selection

Ink - Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

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I suppose we must accept that redundancy is part of progress. Things once essential become marginalised, or disappear altogether. Take ink, once the essential tool for all written communication: first the pencil encroached on its monopoly, then the ball-point pen and finally the computer that seems likely to make not just ink finally redundant, but even handwriting itself. Drawing has always been closely akin to handwriting, and there too ink was for a long time the artist’s indispensable vehicle. They used other media, like chalk and graphite, of course. (The pencil’s handy wooden casing was the revolution, not the graphite it contained.) These could never match ink’s flexibility, however, nor indeed its rapidity. Ink makes a positive mark on the paper at first touch. So it lends itself to quick thinking, put down as quickly. A great draughtsman can describe a figure with a few strokes of the pen. When ink is used with the brush it has a whole range of tonality too, from dark and dense to light and transparent.

With ink the means are always simple, but the results can be complex and infinitely subtle. In the past a pen was always a quill, not a steel nib, and this added another dimension of subtle variety. A small exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery drawn from its great collection of drawings is devoted to exploring these qualities. Called simply Ink it follows on from the similar exhibition put on a while ago devoted to chalk.

It is a nice way of exploring the richness of the collection without being limited by the usual parameters of schools and periods. Drawings are special, too. With them you are beside the artists. You can see them thinking with their hands. The results can be precise as an engineer’s blueprint or as casual as handwriting, just a scribbled note that uses forms not words and letters, but nonetheless a vehicle for thought. Indeed for Vasari, it was drawing that was the mental part of art. Following Vasari, for William Blake it was only drawing, outline, guided by imagination that could find order in the chaotic complexity of nature. He summed it up in a pithy aphorism: Nature has no outline. Imagination has. Scottish artist John Brown shared his view. He refused to use paint at all and only ever drew. His large drawing of the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome with an unexplained scene of violence in the foreground is one of the most striking things here.

Brown’s drawing dates from the 1770s. The earliest work in the show, however, is a small and delicate drawing by Gentile de Fabriano of Christ and St Peter done at the beginning of the 15th century.

Ink certainly lends itself to this kind of minuteness. A beautiful drawing by Jan Brueghel the Elder of two peasants, one of them on a horse, driving cattle along a road, for instance, encompasses all the detail of a wide landscape with hills and forests and a distant town rendered on a few square inches of paper. The same minuteness of finish is seen in an extraordinary drawing done in 1587 by Hendrick Goltzius of the head of a fat man in a tasseled hat. Goltzius was a celebrated engraver, and the regular patterns he makes with his pen also reveal the close affinity between ink drawing and engraving. This is still apparent in one of the latest drawings here, From my Window, done in 1861 by Frederick Sandys specifically to be engraved for the illustrated magazine Once a Week. The engraving is also shown alongside the drawing so you can compare them.

It is, however, as an informal medium that ink really comes into its own. Then the artist’s personality comes out with the pen exactly as it does in handwriting. As well as John Brown, several other Scottish artists are included, among them Brown’s friend Alexander Runciman. In his drawing of King Lear on the Heath we feel vividly both the presence and the character of the artist in just this way. Runciman was a member of the Cape Club, a group of hard-drinking Edinburgh bohemians who racketed around the Old Town in the 1760s and 70s. In their mock ceremonies they called themselves the Knights of the Cape and so all had knightly sobriquets. Runciman’s was Sir Brimstone because of his impatient, passionate nature and you can see exactly that in his drawing, in the bold, untidy strokes of his pen, in his manifest hurry and his visible eagerness to get onto the paper his sense of Lear’s crisis in the storm. It is there even in the impatient way he has torn the page out of his sketchbook leaving a ragged edge down one side. You see something similar in Sir Francis Grant’s drawing of Daisy at the Piano. In this case though it is not so much passion that has shaped the drawing’s casual finish as the need to capture the moment. As a record of the appearance of the sitter it is summary, but the rapid sweep of the artist’s pen captures the mood; the informality of the moment itself is there in the artist’s cursive lines in a way that is only possible with ink as the medium.

Artists such as these were working in what was already a long tradition. Its great master was Rembrandt, represented here by a superb drawing of Christ on the Road to Emmaus. Here Rembrandt shows the way both to Alexander Runciman’s intensity and Sir Francis Grant’s informality. In his drawing, the ink is so dark and heavy in places that it has corroded the paper. Even so the drawing never was more detailed than it seems now. Rapid and summary, Rembrandt seems to have worked with the speed of thought itself to put down his sense of the drama of the moment as, after the Resurrection, Jesus meets two of his disciples who fail to recognise him.

Rembrandt was certainly the first great master to use ink with quite such dramatic informality, but there is a wonderful drawing here by Hendrick Goudt, an artist from whom Rembrandt himself learnt a great deal including, perhaps, as this drawing suggests, the freedom with which he uses ink. Boldly drawn in light and shade with broad strokes of the pen, Goudt’s drawing is of a group of five figures who seem to be spectators at some unseen event. Three men have their backs to us, but the face of a fourth is visible as he turns to a woman beside him. He seems to be saying something about whatever it is that is happening. It is already a comment on Goudt’s skill and economy of means that his drawing, although so simple, conveys so much information.

Rembrandt’s contemporary Pier Francesco Mola uses the brush and pen together in an even more summary way. His drawing is of two men sleeping on the ground with the bottles that were no doubt the cause of their slumbers beside them. Curled up on the ground, the men are drawn with blobs of ink that define their shape so roughly they are really only identifiable by their feet. In the foreground, the bottles have kept their dignity rather better than the men have who have emptied them. They are sleeping in the sunshine, but there is nothing to tell us that except the contrast of ink and white paper. That is what’s so special about ink. It needs no more than a few marks, and the paper joins with it to create a whole world of space and light. It really is a kind of magic.

• Until 9 June