Drawing attention at Dulwich Picture Gallery

T Rowlandson, After Dinner. Art Gallery of Ontario

There’s something alchemic about drawing, the art of conjuring a mood, a person, a whole landscape from a few strokes of pencil, chalk or pen and ink. More than almost any other medium, drawing seems to cut through the centuries, communicating (as the guide to the exhibition points out) with crystal clarity.

There is so much to enjoy in this collection of drawings from the Art Gallery of Ontario, it’s hard to know where to begin. Little gems from big artists almost trip you up as you browse the gallery – is that a Picasso? A Rembrandt, a Van Gogh, a Pollock?

But it’s not always the big names that make the biggest impression. In the very first room, Domenico di Domino’s Standing Draped Youth, a barely-there, ghostly image demonstrates the subtlety achievable by pencil on paper.

The Italian drawings here are preparatory sketches or practice pieces for bigger, bolder paintings. Yet to me they have a charm beyond the paintings. I love to see how things are done, how effects are achieved. Nowhere is that clearer than in Carracci’s Studies of the hand of an angel holding a violin bow, a workmanlike, determined study for a difficult corner of some religious painting.

The prettiness of many of the French drawings – with the exception of the irresistable Boucher’s fresh Young Country Girl Dancing – does little for me, although it’s fascinating to see the split between the classicists and the romantics, with Delacroix’ The Bride of Lammermoor making a terrifying contrast.

Perhaps my favourite of the little drawings by big painters is Van Gogh’s homely Vicarage at Newnen, a simple, pleasing, lovely sketch. It feels like home.

Of the British drawings (and watercolours), I enjoyed a sublime Gainsborough landscape and a ravishing Samuel Palmer Sunset Over The Hills. But the highlight had to be Thomas Rowlandson’s hilarious After Dinner, catching the chaos that descends on the drawing room when the gentlemen re-enter after their port and cigars.

Direct, melancholy, subtle, sublime – drawing can be all these things. But it takes a British cartoonist to make it funny.

Drawing Attention is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 17th January.

Anna Sayburn, December 2009.

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