Clark’s new exhibition reveals artistic process

As you enter the Clark Art Institute’s newest exhibit, Drawn to Drama: Italian Works on Paper, 1500-1800, one of the first objects you encounter is a treatise on painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The presence of da Vinci’s book simultaneously highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the exhibit itself. Most museum-goers will not recognize any of the artist’s names on display; da Vinci’s book, not even a work of art itself, is probably worth more than any one piece in the exhibit. Da Vinci’s presence belittles the significance of every Giovanni, Jacopo, or Giuseppe in the collection. However, da Vinci’s book also highlights the importance of the artistic thought process. When we go to a museum, we are used to being amazed by highly detailed, finished works of art and often neglect to think about how exactly the artist went about creating it. Drawn to Drama focuses on this creative process and allows us to peer into the artists’ heads.

The exhibit progresses from works focusing on the basics of figure drawing to works featuring specific Biblical themes, and then culminates with pieces by two particular Venetian artists, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. The first sections contain drawings that focus on one specific aspect of figure drawing, such as a face or a body in motion. These studies show what areas the artists thought were important to represent in their works.

Further into the exhibition, the drawings become more narrative, including mythological or Biblical characters. Many of these drawings were created as preliminary sketches for paintings. Some of the drawings in the exhibit even have grids drawn on them by the artist to simplify the transfer of the work to a grander scale. Some sketches were intended to become paintings of their own, while others were destined for an architectural setting, either on the wall or the ceiling.

The exhibit emphasizes the range of purposes for drawings. Some appear to be hastily sketched, featuring messy lines and unfinished shapes. Others can and do stand as finished works in their own right. One such drawing, “The Crucifixion” by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, certainly does not feature the clean lines and attention to detail typical of his era, but he did take the time to create a unique composition and to add a few colors and textures. The caption beside the work suggests that it was “an independent work probably intended for private devotion and contemplation.” There is an intimate quality to all the drawings in the gallery; the smaller size and more obvious hand of the artist gives you a sense of greater connection to the artist.

The works of the two featured artists at the end of the exhibit showcase the two main purposes of drawings as studies versus finished works. The drawings on display by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo lack finer details, such as facial expressions or embellishments of clothing, but they provide the overall composition and sense of action. The exhibit explains that after creating the ink drawings, he would make chalk drawings that included these details before moving onto his final product. While it is interesting to see the first stage of Tiepolo’s creative process, it would have been even more effective had they shown the entire progression of one piece of artwork.

Tiepolo’s son’s drawings, however, explore the potential for drawings as finished works of art. He also used ink and washes, but included several figures, settings, and much more detail than his father did in his preliminary drawings.

The exhibit can seem disjointed at times, owing to the fact that it spans three centuries and features unfamiliar artists. The one unifying factor for all the works is the medium, which is ultimately the focus of the exhibit: the potential for drawing as a window into the artist’s mind. The exhibit showcases how drawings allow for a sense of intimacy and an emphasis of concept over technique that you cannot experience with the more typical gallery fare of finished paintings and sculptures.