Drawing is without a doubt the most basic form of visual art. Everyone at some time has tried his or her hand at it. Most of us were handed a crayon well before we could engage in conversation. Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery's current exhibit, Five Centuries of Drawing, featuring selections from the school's permanent collection, demonstrates the enduring nature of drawing techniques, even as styles evolve and morph.
The first drawing in the exhibit is a pen-and-ink wash, "Venus on a Dolphin with Putti" (circa 1575-1599), by an anonymous Flemish artist. Its appearance is as delicate as it is meticulous, and serves as the first marker on a long and winding road.
"It's kind of a history lesson so to speak, taking the viewer from mannerist drawings all the way to the modern period," says gallery director Joseph Mella, curator of the exhibition. "I was also looking for things in our permanent collection that I've always had my eye on and never exhibited, such as the six large drawings by Eugene Biel-Bienne."
The works of Biel-Bienne seem to be the crescendo of the exhibit. The refinement of his line and the depth of expression in his faces connect the methods of the classical to the sensibilities of the modern. His drawing "The Misery Comes Out From All Streets" shows a huddled group of zombie-like city dwellers who stare out at the viewer as though their famished souls are only vaguely aware of their own desperation. "I've always thought those were interesting and strong drawings. Also, looking at connections within the show, we have portraiture represented, examples of preparatory sketches, as well as full-blown developed works."
Among the fully developed works are two drawings from Vanderbilt's own Susan Heiskell Wilkes, who in 1925 became head of the first Medical Illustration department at the Medical Center. "Fundus Retinal Study" is a brilliant red pencil drawing that could easily be an abstract — if the definition of the organic contours didn't tip one off to its more scientific purpose. Her other piece, "Skull Fracture Study," is a small but highly detailed rendering in carbon dust on paper.
"Those two pieces are from the Historical Collection of the Eskind Biomedical Library, and I've always been interested in medical illustration," Mella says. "Being at this university, you can look at other departments where they have these little gems of work that most people don't know about, and it's fun to bring them to light. ... I think they're just superb drawings of their kind."
In the adjacent gallery, American Art at Vanderbilt also showcases selections from the university's permanent collection, and provides a nice contrast to the works on paper.
"Again, I looked for things I hadn't yet exhibited," Mella says. "In some cases they hopefully make interesting connections between different time periods, everything from Cassatt to Warhol."
John Cage and Calvin Sumsion's "Plexigram 1 (Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel)" is particularly interesting. Inspired by the death of Marcel Duchamp, the piece consists of several panes of plexiglas, one in front of the other. As you look through them, it appears that the letters and words printed on their surfaces are hanging in space. "It's of its time and representative of who Cage was," says Mella. "I think it's a clever tip of his hat to Duchamp as well. Apparently after Duchamp died, various artists were asked to comment on him. ... Jasper Johns said, 'I have nothing to say about Marcel', and so Cage took that gesture of turning his back to the artist and put that in as part of his title. It was really a commemoration. Who knows? Jasper Johns was a notoriously private person — maybe he just didn't want to talk about it."
The two exhibits play at different tempos and varying cadences, but in no way clash. Five Centuries of Drawing sets a steady and engrossing pace that prepares one to be thoroughly entertained by the Americana.
"I think it's a great opportunity to take a walk through art history via the medium of drawing," says Mella. "You don't walk into the gallery and have 6- or 8-foot paintings in front of you. It's something you really have to take time and look at. During a hot summer in Nashville, a cool gallery is a welcome respite."
The Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery is on the second floor of Cohen Memorial Hall, 1220 21st Ave. S. The summer hours are noon-4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, noon-8 p.m. Thursday and 1-5 p.m. on Saturday.
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