When it comes to drawing, no other medium has the richness of red chalk – especially when it comes to nudes. Now a new exhibition traces its history, from Renaissance pioneers such as Raphael to the 20th century
Red Chalk: Raphael Ramsay
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
Paper Page process
Patriothall Gallery, Edinburgh
As you enter the tiny gallery, the broom cupboard in fact, devoted to display of work from the National Galleries of Scotland’s wonderful drawing collection (and currently showing Red Chalk: Raphael to Ramsay), there is a little showcase at the door promoting goods from the gallery shop – commerce is everywhere. Need it be? Alongside several vaguely relevant books is a large box of artists’ pencils. This rather misses the point of the exhibition, which is specifically about red chalk as a drawing medium, not graphite, but it demonstrates how the humble pencil has become the default tool for drawing.
Pencils are relatively modern. Indeed in the 18th century, the word itself still meant a paintbrush, not a stick of graphite glued between two bits of wood. The utility of the graphite pencil may be unmatched, but for the figure, red chalk is the richest and most subtle drawing medium that there is.
It is a natural material, a kind of hard volcanic clay. Its great strength is the natural sympathy that exists between its delicacy of touch and warmth of colour and the tones and texture of human skin. Its shadows are transparent, not merely dense or dark; its line has a quality that can define a limb, a face, or a hand, but match the natural softness of its outline. Because these are its particular qualities, red chalk didn’t come into its own until artists started to study the naked human figure: that means the Renaissance. It was Leonardo Da Vinci who saw its potential, Raphael first exploited it to the full.
Appropriately the first drawing here is a nude study by Raphael. It is of a kneeling girl. One arm appears to be raised above her head. The way her arm is drawn looks like an after-thought, but that is not a fault. Part of the unique appeal of drawing is that you can share the artist’s thought processes. Here Raphael’s ideas evolve as he draws. The model posing is a real girl. This was unusual. Raphael himself had earlier used boys to pose for both male and female figures, but on this occasion perhaps that would not do. The label says the drawing was done in connection with a ceiling in the Villa Farnesina in Rome decorated with the marriage of Cupid and Psyche and the loves of the gods. It doesn’t match any actual figure in the ceiling, but was evidently part of the preparatory work for what was to be one of the artist’s most delightful creations and the first really sexy painting since antiquity. No wonder Raphael wanted real girls to pose for his naked goddesses and their attendants. The boys just wouldn’t do.
This Raphael drawing beautifully demonstrates the incomparable affinity between red chalk and the artist’s response to the naked figure in front of him. Others follow him directly. Most closely comparable is a beautiful study by Rosso Fiorentino of Eve reaching up to pick the fatal apple. Done only a year or two later, it too seems to be studied from life. But the medium is very adaptable and its use evolved. There is, for instance, a small, highly finished and very beautiful Madonna and Child by Parmigianino. The artist has exploited the warmth of the medium to the full to capture the intimacy of his subject, but he has also added highlights in white chalk that give it greater relief. In the next century, Guercino demonstrates the freedom red chalk allows to suggest rapid, anxious movement in a study for the figure of Erminia in his large painting of Erminia Finding the Wounded Tancred, also in the gallery.
Not everything here is so distinguished, however, and, in this display at least, it seems not to be until the 18th century that we see again that wonderful combination, visually acute analysis tempered by sympathy, that characterises Raphael’s drawing.
One of the finest recent additions to the drawing collection is a sheet of informal studies from life by Watteau. A man wearing a tricorn hat and fashionable clothes is drawn in two different poses. Beside these is a study of an equally fashionable young woman, seated and turning her head as though someone nearby had just caught her attention.
If Raphael painted the loves of the gods, Watteau brought it down to earth to paint the flirtations of his friends and contemporaries. As he does so he captures inimitably the grace and animation of young people. Through Watteau, red chalk became a primary medium for 18th century artists, not just for the figure, but for landscape too. There is a lovely classical landscape by Hubert Robert here, for instance.
William Delacour, first master of the Trustees Academy, used the medium with skill. Oddly, Alexander Runciman, who followed in the post a little later, is omitted, although a student at the Academy whom he most likely taught, one J Baine, is included.
The real master of red chalk is Allan Ramsay, however. His study of his wife, Margaret Lindsay – head down as though reading and unaware of the painter – is a masterpiece. I cannot imagine any other medium matching its warmth and intimacy.
Raphael and Ramsay are given as the limits of this exhibition, but actually it continues into the 20th century, unremarkably enough, except for a drawing by Robert Burns. A beautiful female nude, it bookends the Raphael, but puts quite a different spin on things. Seen against the light, the woman seems to be doing the Dance of the Seven Veils and has got down to the last one.
By their nature drawings cannot be displayed all the time, but the collection of drawings is one of the NGS’s great treasures. Indeed its collection of Scottish drawings is unique. Drawing matters, too. The Italian word is disegno (design), implying a mental activity as well as a purely manual one.
For Vasari disegno was the essential armature of art and it remained that way until very recently. The older generation of our artists still learnt to draw. The present generation does not. As David Hockney said of his own training. “You can teach the craft, it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.”
The work of the eight artists of the artist nook group at WASPS is a quiet rebellion against that situation. The exhibition Paper Page Process, currently on show in the gallery at WASPS Patriothall Studios, combines craft and poetry to create beautiful things. There is a link here to Ian Hamilton Finlay. Linda May Miller’s large wall poem is concrete poetry, for instance, but her painting Glasgow Wall is beautiful in a way he would never have countenanced.
There is a very fine large painting by Susie Leiper, but like her exquisite homage to Kathleen Raine, most of the works on view are books – not books to read in bed, but they are at least made of folded paper. Some carry text, too. Where it is used, however, it is part of the beauty of the work.
Susie Leiper, for instance, writes western script with the skill of an oriental calligrapher. Text is combined with painting, drawing, and sculpture too. Lynda Wilson’s Stockbridge Secrets and Jennifer Bruce’s The Only Way is Through, for instance, are intricately cut and folded paper sculptures. Intimate and complex, the works in this show deliberately restate the importance of beauty, not as so much decoration, but as a thing of value in itself. By associating it with texts and indeed with poetry, with books in fact, they also remind us that it is not a passive thing. It acts in the world. Thus they reclaim the idea of disegno, of beauty that is built around an armature of thought.
Best in Show
Allan Ramsay eloped with his wife Margaret Lindsay as her father wouldn’t countenance her marrying a mere artist. The painting he did of her arranging flowers not long after their marriage is one of the best loved in the National Galleries of Scotland. His drawing of her is less familiar, but is equally touching in its testimony to their relationship. She is looking down, perhaps reading and apparently unaware of him. It captures a moment of quiet domestic intimacy. Red chalk is the perfect medium, and because of Ramsay’s mastery of it, we can share that moment across the centuries.
• Raphael to Ramsay continues until 10 June, Paper Page Process until 6 March.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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