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The Flâneur's Sketchbook and Camera

I've been spending the morning contemplating what to do with this nice day, but after reading about the openings of the two big drawing exhibitions at the Met and the Morgan, I've decided that drawing shall be the theme of the weekend. I plan to visit these public showings and report back, including notes of whatever transpires on the walks to and from the museums.

As the weather brightens, I'm thinking like a flâneur again, as opposed to the couch potato who has spent the last five days watching HDTV. Drawing as an expressive art form appeals to me as a stroller of the streets. As I've come to discover, many artists, especially in the flâneur's heyday of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were fond of walking the streets and countryside. I'm particularly thinking about Seurat, Kirchner and Van Gogh, all of whom I've written about. What better way to observe the world than to walk through the environment and sketch what one sees? Drawing requires thought, focus, and concentration and what an artist friend of mine calls "a lot of eye-hand coordination." It's a fun pastime, but many people chicken out.

The flâneur, as both a participant and observer of street life, should always have some tools handy to record his or her strolling experiences. The portable camera is certainly one of these instruments. While the flâneur is understood to be highly perceptive, and more so than the passive consumerist tourist, we should expect higher standards of photography from these artist-strollers than from the simple recording of a tourist experience. Indeed, street photography and flâneurie enjoy a close relationship, born out in the work of Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Eugene Atget, and many more. That said, the advent of fancy digital cameras give even the most disengaged of tourists the wherewithal to snap some nice images.

The flâneur has earned a reputation as being something of a dilettante, a person with some light interest in the arts. Sketching seems particularly suited for people in my line of work. Bringing along a small sketchbook on a stroll seems a perfect way to record observations in both words and images. As dilettantes, we don't feel pressured to attempt the well-executed drawing once we're back home. This is particularly true for those of us with large television sets. Cell phones are to be avoided on strolls and used only in case of an emergency.

This morning, I discovered a terrific link to artist's sketchbooks online. Many belong to famous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Jacques-Louis David, David Hockney, and Vincent Van Gogh, but many of the books represented are the work of contemporary artists of demonstrated skill and imagination.

Here are the details of the two drawing exhibitions opening in NY this week:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue:
Raphael to Renoir: Drawings from the Collection of Jean Bonna
January 21, 2009–April 26, 2009

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

Images: Sketch of legs and feet aboard the A train, from my sketchbook; and photo of Caffe Dante, 79 Macdougal St., Greenwich Village, U.S.A. Cafés are a flâneur's best friend.





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