Time pieces: Master drawings at the Fralin are teaching tools and historical documentation

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Giacomo Guardi’s “View of the Piazza San Marco” is a cheerful example of the gouache technique. Courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA. Giacomo Guardi’s “View of the Piazza San Marco” is a cheerful example of the gouache technique. Courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA.

Frederick and Lucy S. Herman began collecting drawings as college students, and over the ensuing 50 years amassed a considerable collection of more than 250 works on paper that showcase the myriad techniques and approaches within the field. Produced between the years 1530 and 1945, these drawings run the gamut. There are religious and genre scenes, portraiture, landscape and social satire. Visual interest seems to be the common thread linking them. Executed in chalk, pen and ink, gouache, or charcoal, some are informal sketches, others studies for paintings, and still others are stand-alone works of art.
UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art features a selection of drawings from the Herman’s sizeable collection curated by McIntire Department of Art’s Lawrence O. Goedde. Most of the works were donated to the museum in 2006-07 for the instruction of the University’s students. Working with the drawings has enabled art history students not only to examine original artworks, but also to gain an understanding of the role drawing plays in the creative process. Here, the research done by graduate and undergraduate students has resulted in important new discoveries pertaining to the attributions and subject matter. The collection should also naturally serve as a vital teaching tool for studio art students; how better to learn techniques than by seeing them so consummately employed?
Beginning with the elegant “Study for St. Kunigunda,” c. 1528-1532, attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger or his workshop, which depicts the courtly saint regarding a jeweled cross. It’s a wonderful record of 16th century fashion, beautifully drawn and highly detailed right down to the many rings that grace St. Kunigunda’s fingers. Nearby is “Young Man from the Rear, Holding a Distaff and Spindle,” Anonymous c. 1510-1550, a drawing that has been pounced (pierced along its lines) so that it can be readily transferred. This technique was used to place the outline of an image on a surface that would later be painted and also in woodcuts. Given the subject matter—the man’s lost his pants and carries two items (spindle and distaff) that were signs of women’s work, as well as evidence of his emasculation, one could imagine that it would be made for the latter purpose with multiple versions of this cautionary tale disseminated. However, according to the wall piece, no such prints exist.
Moving from bathos to pathos we come to the figure study for “And the Sea Gave up the Dead Which Were in It,” 1882-1884, by Frederic Leighton. Though it is a study, the placement of the three figures has the gravitas of a finished work and the tortuous rendering of the shrouds’ drapery seems to provide a metaphor for the tortured state of the souls.
Luca Cambiaso’s “The Arrest of Christ,” 1570-1575, is astonishing. The figures have a severe, modern quality and their movement—literally blown off their feet by the force of the energy emanating from the Christ figure (depicted by radiating lines) is unexpected. Across the room, Cambiaso’s “Two Figures” is more conventional, but as a quick study has an appealing immediacy and fluidity.
The “View of the Piazza San Marco,“ early 19th century, by Giacomo Guardi was evidently made for the tourist trade. It’s a charming little Venetian Valentine, a precise rendering of the piazza’s architecture with perfect little dots of paint describing the people walking about the square. Above, delicate clouds drift against a cerulean sky, smoke floats up from a chimney and on a rooftop one can spot clothes drying on a line. Delightful, small references to quotidian existence in this iconic place.
Claude Hoin’s “Portrait of a Man,” 1770-1790, is not only beautifully rendered, but is an extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal of an individual. It’s a fitting work from the Age (albeit the tail-end) of Enlightenment.
“The Four Disgracers: Icarus, Phaeton, Tantalus, and Ixion,” Anonymous c. 18th century is a heroic depiction of the masculine form. Seen from below, the figures seem to tumble down through space at us.
An unusual nocturnal scene, “Pastoral Landscape with a Peasant and his Flock at Night,” c. 1760-1771, by Philip James de Loutherbourg, features white chalk used with deftness to create the effect of moonlight. It’s a stylish, evocative piece.
For those familiar with Francois Boucher’s saccharine paintings, his “Farmyard Scene,” 1733-1766, is refreshingly down to earth, drawn with confidence, simplicity, and dash.
Other works of note include Tiepolo’s “Head of a Youth,” Tomas Ender’s “Study of Trees with Three Figures in a Landscape,” c. 1815, Carl Friedrich Schulz’s “Faust in his Study,” 1822, Caspar Johann Nepomuk Scheuren’s “Hermit Reading in a Mountain Valley,” c. 1840-1850, and Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem’s “Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal,” c. 1647.
“Traces of the Hand” presents a rich and varied survey of drawing, adeptly making the case that drawings have the power to give you a more intimate understanding of an artist than any other art form. It’s as Goedde says in his accompanying text: “In contrast to paintings and sculptures… drawings record the movements of the artist’s hand, and through these traces of the artist’s touch, we can decipher hand, eye, and imagination coordinating in the intensity of the creative moment itself.”

Through May 26 “Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman”/The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia

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