January 24, 2018

Beauty in the Unfinished: Drawing the Line

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Drawing the Line, open until June 10 at the Johnson, displays over a century of drawing history from European artists. In particular, the exhibit celebrates both the drawing as a sovereign entity as well as an often-ignored component of the artistic process in its entirety. In this way, Drawing the Line forces the audience to closely reevaluate pre-existing notions of where and how beauty is to be found.

A drawing technique with a history of over six centuries, gouache differs from watercolor in that it produces a distinctly more opaque finish. In an untitled composition from 1915, Pablo Picasso intermingles both gouache and watercolors. The artist’s oeuvre is well-known for expressing the tumultuous social, political and emotional upheavals of his life and the painting in question was heavily influenced by the passing of his lover Eva Gouel in December of 1915, the same year as the painting’s completion. The subject of the painting is a seated figure whose depiction is almost defined by its ambiguity. While the fragmented nature of the gouache is undoubtedly ubiquitous to the Cubist technique, the portrayal simultaneously alludes to the devastation that Picasso witnessed not only in his personal life, but in the surrounding world as well. It is unclear whether the subject is the departed Eva, a grim reaper figure or a vivid interpretation of the artist’s own inner state, but perhaps most compelling is the possibility that the work is a centralization of all three.

While some pieces in the exhibit are shown on their own, others are displayed next to the finished piece for which they are a draft. An untitled drawing from 1932 by Arshile Gorky depicts an arrangement of abstract yet organic figures, and while the overall shape is transmitted to the painting, the latter’s vivid color patterns evoke an emotionally distinct character from the former. The drawing does, however, manage to convey a sense of texture and dimension through variations in line techniques and patterns, nuances which have been painted over in the finished product. The judicious techniques often employed by similar drawings tend to have the effect of demarcating the space without disrupting it, and it is this sublime restraint which takes place at the heart of the works’ elegance.

A similar juxtaposition of a drawing with its painting is a portrait by Duncan Grant of his colleague Mina Kirstein Curtiss. The sketch employs charcoal and red chalk and in many ways is deeply moving. The sketch depicts the subject’s wistful gaze of painful acuity while the medium itself betrays a certain organic intimacy. At the same time, the contrast between jagged lines and blurred frontiers of shades radiates an elegance that is uncanny.

When exhibited with the finished artistic product we tend to presume — due to the lack of visual detail — that the drawing assumes a position inferior to the work that it precedes temporarily. However, introspection suggests that this mode of thought is deeply rooted in a detail-centric view of artistic value. Breaking free from such methodological frameworks, it becomes clear that it is perhaps absence rather than presence to which the expressive power of the works can be attributed.

Conventionally, we are shown only the final product to be the point of artistic departure and it is toward this which we are attuned. However, Drawing the Line and its focus on the finished works’ predecessors suggest that instead of proceeding along a linear path which theoretically blossoms into the polished masterpiece, the works in question develop across a series of spaces with their own points of artistic departure, whether they express themselves through a handful of dark jagged lines or a labyrinth of dazzling color and detail.

Varun Biddanda is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at vdb22@cornell.edu.