|William H. Johnson, "Musicmakers," 1926.|
When I began to study art at the undergraduate level, I didn't know that drawing seems to be misunderstood by the general public as an area of art restricted to studies and incomplete ideas. I couldn’t comprehend why gestures made in graphite, charcoal or pastels didn’t command the same respect as those made in oil, acrylic or tempera. In my mind, drawing was always a separate but equal companion to painting. I realized that that idea was part of the modern era’s growing appreciation for a look into the artist’s inner thoughts and feelings, and things had not always been that way.
Many drawings do maintain a documentary, eyewitness approach, which is why they have historically been viewed as studies, but by the turn of the 20th century, the popularity of drawing improved, and artists began to create with an understanding of the potential for public viewing. With artists’ acknowledging the public, it’s much easier to understand how highly polished and refined drawing can be seen as a substantial art form, but even solely functional studies offer as much intrigue and insight as the lauded masters’ paintings.
When considering various qualities that make a work of art valuable to its viewers, drawings have the potential to be more accessible than painting and just as rewarding: how the elements of a drawing are arranged for compounded meaning, how its formal qualities inflect conceptual purpose, how it expresses sentiment and vulnerability, how its means and method influence the subject, how it inspires and amazes, how its textures and line-work satisfy the soul, how it gets at this bare-bones, core component of art that is sharing one’s life through intended visual experience.
I’m not proposing that the drawings Edward Hopper did in preparation for "Nighthawks" (1942) deserve the same critical attention as the finished work, but they are just as fascinating to me, and the painting wouldn’t have been as successful without them. Dry media is highly conducive to spontaneous mark-making, so drawing can be a valuable tool for inquiry and exploration, discovery and innovation.
In a relatively brief and recent span of art history, we have begun to value when striated marks and impulsive flicks of the wrist evince an artist's intuition because those marks heighten the intimacy one feels with the artist. The reason I decided to focus on drawing for my bachelor of fine arts degree (in progress at the Lamar Dodd School of Art) is because it allows raw ideas and emotions to flow quickly and easily. I saw it as an open-ended discipline in the contemporary art world ripe for exploration.
Similarly inspired by the insightful “pictures of the artist’s mind and method, his or her sensibilitá,” a young Giuliano Ceseri, living just outside Florence in the mid-20th century, was collecting art when he was only 14 years old, eventually pursuing his talents to become a gallerist. In 1995, he placed about 1,500 of those works on long-term loan to the Georgia Museum of Art, and although the collection is dominated by Renaissance-era drawings, the exhibition "Modern Masters from the Giuliano Ceseri Collection" shows works from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The collection shows the diverse ways artists use drawing in their practice, and it offers an opportunity to observe their discoveries and unique intuition by means of the raw expression present in their mark-making. One such work that encompasses the many ways drawings demand respect akin to painting is William H. Johnson’s "Musicmakers" (1926). Drawn in graphite on paper, it shows that the artist's primary goal was to work out the composition and lighting: the standing figures’ heads are cropped and the angles of the highlights dominate the eye’s movement. It’s easy to focus on the imperfections of the work, but inquisitive drawings have the potential to inspire and amaze even when they have technical flaws. Just look at that genius in the middle figure’s right shoe, the crook of that same man’s left arm, the guitar player’s nimble fingers – those 3-second impulses evince skill found only after a lifetime of practice.
Many artists can craft a beautifully illusive drawing of a hand, but only a few can describe the essence of something so visually complex in the duration of an impulse. One of the things I love most about drawing is its immediacy and conduciveness for intuition, and graphite is particularly transparent and revealing. I can reasonably guess that Johnson first tackled the gestural line work with the bodies loosely arranged and the heads reduced to simple ovals. Then he selectively darkened the primary contours and gradually added value with directional marks, heightening the contrast as he continued. Last, he probably added in the detailed flourishes on the face, hands and wrinkled clothing. The contrast between the steady and diligent work on the faces and the rapid marks on the body is especially effective at guiding the eye.
The highlight of the work for me is the woman’s dress, with its rhythmic folds that show the effortless sweeping motion of Johnson’s pencil. In it, you can see how the layers previously mentioned have been built up. The figures’ postures seem significant and purposeful, yet the empty spaces speak as much as the figures. Johnson’s use of space in his paintings is very block-like, but the spaces in the drawing are activated with texture. How might it affect our interpretation to see that the figures aren’t so two-dimensional? Whereas Johnson's paintings are reductive, with heightened symbolism, this elaborate drawing seems to say more about the artist than his subjects.
We all have different tastes in art, so I charge you to consider what you value and appreciate most when perusing an exhibition, and then consider how drawings relate to those values. “Modern Masters from the Giuliano Ceseri Collection” is currently on display at the museum through November 12, so be sure to explore, discover, observe and reflect while you have the chance.