As drawings grow ever more popular among artists and museumgoers, as well as connoisseurs and gallerists, the once negligible corner of the art world is slowly re-emerging. Brian Noone reports
One of the reasons it’s still possible to come across a Canaletto drawing or a Michelangelo figure study while rummaging through a fusty old country manor – as has been done recently – is because, in the words of Greg Rubinstein, head of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s, “not many people look carefully at drawings”. What’s still more true is that not many people bother to look at drawings at all: perhaps considering them incomplete or preparatory, the public all but ignores them at museums, preferring the bright hues and broad brush strokes of paintings and the tactility and three-dimensionality of sculptures. It’s no wonder the number of auctions and private gallery shows given over to works on paper are significantly outnumbered by those dedicated to other art forms.
And yet this hasn’t always been the case: basic literacy in drawing was once a central pillar of children’s education, and drawings themselves long enjoyed greater prominence among artists and collectors, as well as across popular culture. The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in drawings across the art world – and it’s a phenomenon that looks to be long-lasting. In New York in May, one of the four versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold for $119.9m, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. What’s most remarkable is not that it exceeded the previous high, Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, by more than $13m, but that the work, a distinctly linear pastel on wood, is by most definitions a drawing. It even spent 17 lonely years, from 1989 to 2006, on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, where it was primarily seen by scholars and students in the Print Study Rooms.
The Munch piece is not alone in fetching a premium: a Raphael drawing sold for $47.5m in 2009, a trio of Turners went for $3.4m earlier this summer and a small work by Pieter van Bloemen with a high estimate of $7,805 sold for $397,349 in December 2011. There is undoubtedly a buzz about drawings at the moment, particularly at the upper end of the market.
But it is also true that many excellent drawings, even by Old Masters, still sell for less than $30,000, a bargain when measured against comparable paintings. Of a Canaletto drawing recently sold at Sotheby’s – the one unearthed in a private collection – Rubinstein said the estimate for a painting of similar size and quality would be “about ten times higher”.
What explains the disparity? Stephanie Buck, curator of drawings at the Courtauld, one of the world’s premier art institutions, has part of an answer: “Paintings want to be public, much more public than drawings”. There is something about the viscosity, the lack of transparency and, in figurative paintings, the illusion of reality that insists upon communal display. Drawing, on the other hand, has a more personal poignancy; it is, says Buck, a “direct form of expression, whether tentative or deliberate”. The viewer is always aware of the artist when looking at a drawing, conscious of the hand that crafted each line.
There is also their fragility: drawings were traditionally kept in airtight boxes to stave off deterioration (a problem still not solved for drawings made with iron gall ink, which many of the Old Masters used, or for those made on very thin, newsprint-like paper), meaning the only way to preserve them was to look at them sparingly. Paintings, in contrast, are much more robust: in 1914 English artist David Bomberg famously hung his Vorticist masterpiece The Mud Bath on the exterior wall of a London gallery which was showing his work. It was recently on display again in London, this time at the Tate Britain, in an exhibition entitled Migrations, showing no damage from the time spent in the elements.
Similar treatment of a drawing would destroy it in minutes. And indeed in some of the early works of contemporary artist Tacita Dean – in which she drew on chalkboards – an integral part of the pieces was the gush of air generated by a passing viewer, which would slowly dislodge the chalk dust and, over time, erase the drawings.
“There is significant crossover between buyers of contemporary art and Old Master drawings,” says Rubinstein, an unexpected correlation he attributes to collectors wanting to “be involved with the process of creation”. And as understanding the creative process becomes increasingly important to interpretation, appreciation for drawings can only increase. When Colin Bailey, deputy director and chief curator of New York’s Frick, who is curating a major exhibition this year with Buck (see “Autumn in New York”), points to a Rembrandt drawing in the show and invites a viewer to “feel the way chalk and paper create light”, it is wondrous in its simplicity. Whereas paint requires multiple coats and hues to create the effect, a few grains of chalk deposited on the rough surface of the paper can achieve breathtaking luminosity.
London gallerist Thomas Williams sees the market a little differently. “There seems to be an increasing interest in contemporary rather than Old Master drawings, from people of all ages,” he says. Williams would know: his is one of the few galleries in the world to alternate Old Master and contemporary drawings in the same space.
The expansion of the Drawing Center in New York City offers support for this perspective: based in SoHo, the 35-year-old institute is reopening this autumn to include 50% more display space. Executive director Brett Littman attributes the recent increased interest in drawing among artists to at least two causes: first, “drawing is portable and easy to do”, making it ideal for the increasingly peripatetic artist class that populates urban centres. Second, he says, “as we become more involved in the digital world, the simple idea of communicating through drawing is becoming more important.” It’s a motivation that not only accounts for artists’ renewed interest in drawing, but also perhaps for art enthusiasts’. As communication becomes increasingly virtual and production of just about everything is outsourced, it’s novel to feel connected with someone somewhere who made an object in its entirety.
“Openness is at the heart of drawings,” says Buck, a description that seems to apply to the people involved with them as well. The drawing world is no longer solely populated by “ancient professors in glasses”, as Rubinstein says, but it remains small enough to be – except at the high end – mercifully free of the forces that make so much of the artworld unpleasant. With luck, the medium’s reviving popularity won’t change that.
Autumn in New York
The place to be this season for drawing lovers is New York, where the highlights from two superlative collections will be on display. Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery is on at the Frick (frick.org) from 2 October to 27 January, featuring a number of seminal works, including Michelangelo’s The Dream. Thirtysome blocks south, at the Morgan (themorgan.org), Durer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich will showcase the standout pieces from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, a tremendous yet little-known collection, from 12 October to 6 January. Meanwhile, The Drawing Center (drawingcenter.org) reopens its newly expanded SoHo space this season following a $9.6m refit.
Departures, Q3, 2012