When I was a student at the Slade School of Art we used to make a weekly study visit to the print rooms in the basement of the British Museum. The Museum holds one of the world’s greatest collections of works on paper; about 50,000 drawings and more than two million prints. Each week the curator would bring out a stack of the big archival ‘solander’ boxes in which the delicate works on paper are stored, and set out a selection of drawings and prints for us to view.
It seemed miraculous that we could see and handle (carefully) works by Dürer, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Kollwitz and Picasso as well as more recent and contemporary artists like David Hockney or Paula Rego. Many of the older drawings were worked on both sides and were mounted so you could turn them over and find notes and lists and scribbles on the back. It felt so intimate, like we were peering over the artist’s shoulder.
The memory of those visits came back to me this weekend when I went to see the British Museum touring exhibition PUSHING PAPER: CONTEMPORARY DRAWING FROM 1970 TO NOW currently on show at the Pier Art Centre here in Stromness.
The qualities we have come to value most highly in art in the twentieth century have always been present in…drawings. These characteristics include spontaneity, creative speculation, experimentation, directness, simplicity, abbreviation, expressiveness, immediacy, personal vision, technical diversity, modesty of means, rawness, fragmentation, discontinuity, unfinishedness and open-endedness.
I always find myself describing my own work as drawing rather than painting, even though it’s not always on paper. There’s something about the tension between drawing as process and drawing as product or a thing that feels like an interesting space to explore.
Grammatically speaking the word drawing is a participle that can be understood as both verb and noun. To see drawing as an activity offers respect to the process itself, and traditionally drawings were made on the way to the more serious business of painting.
Drawing as outcome
But to see drawing as an outcome in its own right too, as has become the case in more recent times, makes us look at it with more respect. Katharine Stout, curator of another major drawing exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 2003 observed that:
A commitment to skilful, labour-intensive methods is no longer seen as mutually exclusive to the drive to articulate a philosophical concept or a challenging idea.
I don’t come at these drawings as a scholar but as an artist seeking fellow travellers, inspiration, looking to learn something that I can take with me back to the studio. So the drawings I responded to most vividly in the show are the ones that resonate with things I’m thinking about or trying to do in my own work. A scavenger, if you like.
I offer here a few choice pickings.
Rachel Duckhouse’s drawing of delicate layers of interlocking meshes is based on the nano-structures of shells and similar natural forms; the title of this drawing refers to a tiny coral sea creature. It offers us an insight into nature’s complex structures that operate at every level, right down to the invisibly tiny microscopic world.
Meticulous in its detail, this little drawing is a reminder of the complex mathematical geometries and delicate symmetry of natural growth patterns.
Rachel Duckhouse, Coralinae, 2011, Pen and ink, 42x41cm
The original meaning of the writing is lost, but I loved the sense here of a searching nib, of feeling for a thought, the work of writing by hand. It’s a craft of writing that’s declining in a world of iPhones and laptops.
Resonating with the conversation between drawing and writing I wrote about previously, it reminds me of the distinct difference there is between writing longhand in a notebook and writing on a keyboard.
Sentences take more meandering, associative forms when allowed to uncurl in long loops of cursive script than when tapped out letter by letter.
The result is something so modest; a soft, gently modulated grey square, yet so densely packed with time and attention that the drawing becomes an object of contemplation as well as the result of what must be a deeply contemplative process. The title refers to holy scripts and, according to Andrew Parkinson, who curated this section of the show, it ‘relates to the ancient Hebrew art of writing in very small letters to create decorative or symbolic patterns’.
It must take some humility and courage to embark on one of these drawings, knowing how long it will take, and that the final result will be so unassuming that many will simply overlook it. But for those who stop and notice its detail, it is a thing of quiet wonder.
Mountains and rivers without end
But the highlight for me was this large ink drawing ‘ Mountain’ by Minjung Kim. It’s skilfully hung opposite the door so you can view if from a distance and be drawn inexorably towards it, as I was, to see the delicate details of texture and tone. Made in ink on paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree, it’s evident that Kim, who studied traditional Korean calligraphy and painting for many years, has a deep respect and love for the medium. She says
I only have to touch the paper to know how it will absorb the water, how the ink will spread on it….
There’s a lot going on here. Deceptive in its simplicity, this drawing balances materials and how they behave, with the finesse of a highly skilled human hand at work; a dance between chance and control.
It certainly left me with food for thought as I return to my own studio.