The Curious Lines of Animals and Leaves (A Review)

Man may be the measure of all things, but what of dachshunds, blind owls and antelopes? While the drawings from the Thaw Collection currently on display at the Morgan Library & Museum feature many images of human beings - Gauguin's Breton girls, a masterly Standing Young Man from Adolph Menzel, a couple of monks walking through cloisters, and more, I was struck by the many images of animals by these master draftsmen of art. As you can guess, the delicate graphite pencil drawing of the antelope horns belongs to Georgia O'Keeffe, yet her work on Manilla paper (shades of elementary school!) is joined by Jackson Pollock's Untitled (Abstract Ram), a couple of black ink washes of birds by Robert Motherwell, Jim Dine's Blind Owl, David Hockney's sleepy dachshunds, a brown bear by a 16th-17th century Netherlandish artist, and a dog or two romping in other old master drawings. I suppose I could add Jamie Wyeth's profile drawing of Andy Warhol to this list, as Wyeth seems to regard his subject as something of a creature - it's got a wig, pockmarked face, and bird-like hands.

These eighty drawings at the Morgan, consisting of work from the Renaissance to the present, present a variety of styles, thus making for an eclectic exhibition. It's still a convincing argument for the splendors of draftsmanship. In addition to the animal imagery, I was struck by the efforts of German landscape artists of the late 18th century to master the shape of leaves. One particular drawing by Jacob Philipp Hackert, a friend of Goethe's, shows a methodical, almost obsessive repetition of the leaves on a tree, relying totally on line. His more finished landscape oil paintings show off the results of his practice. The drawing of one of his contemporaries, the Swiss artist Adrian Zingg (1734–1816), drew my attention, because the wall tag accompanying his landscape of a castle on the Elbe notes that the artist enjoyed "numerous walking tours."

One work that completely grabbed me was 18th century British artist George Romney's drawing titled "John Howard Visiting a Prison." The narrative depicts prison reformer Howard looking aghast at a group of cowering, depraved and ill-clad captives. The drawing in ink and wash is loose and sketchy, with intentional distortions in the figures. The drawing packs an emotional power, inspired by a documentary social reform impulse, and it seems wholly modern. Other works of note include two portrait drawings by Ingres and a figurative drawing of a woman by Monet.

The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings: Acquisitions Since 2002
The Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street. January 23 through May 3, 2009.


Anton Deque said...

Teri, I thought I sent you a comment? Maybe my pre-technological brain mistook ..

There is a Howard League for Penal Reform and it still does good work with prisoners. It does not try to get crooks off, just looked after humanely. A recent President of the League was John Mortimer, the Queen's Counsel and writer who created "Rumpole of the Bailey" and who died this month.

Teri Tynes said...

Hi Anton,

Good to know about the continuation of the Howard League and the connection to the late John Mortimer.