Monday, 5 June 2017

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

I was at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House. My National Art Pass saves me quite a lot of money visiting exhibition but the deal at Courtaulds is the best so far. I get into both the permanent collection and the temporary exhibitions for free. Saving me £7. Which would've been a lot of money to pay for their slight, and only intermittently interesting, Reading Drawings exhibition.

One medium sized room containing works from the 16th to the 20th century with seemingly little in common other than having some writing, some kind of inscription, on them. It seemed an unusual thing to base a show around. My curiosity was piqued.

The most common inscriptions to appear on drawings (or paintings) are, of course, signatures of the artists with maybe a date or a title. Notes on colour sometimes appear, as do comments highlighting changes to be made during the final composition, many of these drawings being preparatory sketches. Those considered already completed may include captions or explanations to help the viewer understand what the artist is trying to say.

Some have no relevance whatsoever. They've simply been used as handy scraps of paper for making notes about things unrelated to the work. Sometimes what's written is a lie. Fake authentication of a work, if not rumbled, makes it exponentially more expensive so owners often forged the signatures of masters in an attempt to accrue wealth. Bad people.

Finance is the dirty secret, an open dirty secret, that dominates the art world and has been for centuries. Juan de Juanes 1556 Study for his St Stephen Taken to his Martyrdom is scribbled over with (mostly) illegible calculations for the cost of the final painting. Another work of his contains, in both Latin and Valencian, a recipe for an adhesive used in gilding!

Artists from the studio of Raphael have written a shopping list on a sketch of theirs. It includes such delights as 'Sunday evening sausage bread and salad' and 'Monday morning bread'. It almost seems disrespectful to jot down such things over the expertly drawn body of Venus and leg of Mercury,

Italian School, Study of Antique Sculptures (1490-1515)
The 17c artist  Wibrant Jansen's signature is the only evidence we have of his existence. Canaletto, of course, is considerably more well known. He depicted the Piazza San Giacomo Di Rialto in Venice many times but this is the only version titled in his hand. It was probably a design for a print.

Canaletto, Piazza San Giacomo Di Rialto, Venice (1760s)
There's a Rodin forgery that was only uncovered because the chancer had got Auguste's moniker wrong. There are flying angels, there are statues from the Tuileries Gardens, there's a frontispiece design in the style of Guercino, and there are Roman donkey monuments designed by Pietro di Cortona. It's all a bit beige though - so the flash of colour provided by Paul Signac's Still Life with Watermelon comes as something as a relief.

Paul Signac, Still Life with Watermelon (1918)

Francesco Simonini, Howling Dog (1730-50)
Simonini's Howling Dog, too, has charm. I know I'm supposed to be hear to learn about inscriptions on art and what they signify but, fuck me, it's dry. I can't help focusing on the works themselves instead. They're more interesting. Well, some of them. The Howling Dog was a study for one of the cavalry scenes that the Parma born, Venice based, artist specialised in. It was attributed as a Simonini by a collector who became known under the fabulous nom de plume 'Reliable Venetian Hand' for his impressive authentication skills.
The rich in detail Stradanus drawing, below, was intended as an illustration for Odysseus. Flemish captions explain that Circe, the sorceress (one of the many historical figures George Romney painted Emma Hamilton as), is tempting Ulysses to drink a potion that will turn him into a beast. Previous victims, already transformed, occupy the right hand third of the work.

Stradanus, Circe and Ulysses (approx. 1596)

Thomas Rowlandson, Comparative Studies of Human and Animal Heads (approx. 1825)
Thomas Rowlandson was another who took an interest in such things too. The inscription below the English caricaturist's comparative chicken, goat, and human heads refers to the Pythagorean belief that human souls could be reincarnated in animal bodies. Not the reason I'm a vegetarian but a fairly compelling argument for why Pythagoras may've been one.
Elsewhere in the exhibition there are architectural plans for Rome's Palazzo Scapucci, a Rubens illustration of animals being 'created' (perhaps intended for bible illustration), and a sketch of some Austrians jousting. They're diverting enough but they don't exactly thrill and, more importantly, they don't hang together very will.
Edward Lear (yep, that one) give us another welcome splash of colour with his Villefranche-Sur-Mer from 1865, made six years before he wrote The Owl and The Pussycat. While sketching en plein air Lear would scribble 'phonetic' notes to himself to remind himself of colours etc; that needed to be worked up in watercolour later in the studio. Examples range from the rather obvious 'olives' to the peculiar 'grey fox + urbz' though, sadly, there's nothing about 'the land where the Bong-tree grows'!

Edward Lear, Villefranche-Sur-Mer (1865)

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Landscape Sketches (1859)
A distracting, if ultimately slightly disappointing, exhibition, concludes with a Corot sketch that doesn't look like very much at all - and probably isn't. Corot was a notoriously compulsive doodler and was probably just testing his pen. That's why his signature is in the middle of the daub. It's an odd thing to have in an art show but then it was an odd idea for an art show. In both its peculiarity and the negligible amount of interest the Corot sketch is likely to generate, however, it is absolutely quintessential to the remit and becomes almost emblematic of the entire experience.
With that I took advantage of the rest of the lovely, quiet (and did I mention free to me?) galleries. Nothing in this show could match their collection of Van Goghs, Cezannes, Seurats, Pissarros, and Gauguins but then that was never really the idea.

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