Landscape at Collioure, Oil on canvas. In the ...

Landscape at Collioure, Oil on canvas. In the collection of the MOMA. 38.8 x 46.6 cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Open Window, Collioure (1905, Henri Matisse) i...

Open Window, Collioure (1905, Henri Matisse) inside the National Gallery of Art’s East Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Woman Reading, Oil on canvas. In the Cone coll...

Woman Reading, Oil on canvas. In the Cone collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These days we are unlikely to be quite that opinionated about drawing. Few would want to
explain why a drawing was outrageously bad – you chuckle knowing that it is meant to be
like that. The most impressive drawing show that I have seen in recent years was the Polke
exhibition at MOMA in 1999, and if I think of it as ‘creative’ it is because of its fearless,
searching energy – from a scrawl in a private sketchbook to a vast Spiderman fantasy. I
wonder what Matisse would have made of it. Would he have sensed an underlying
competence, a discipline? Or a degenerate, diseased mind?
For generations of nervous art students the key to getting onto a good course was the portfolio of drawings. The interview panel would leaf through these in silence.

If they weren’t up to scratch no amount of smart talk would get you through. It wasn’t just about ability or perseverance or ‘being able to draw’ – that could mean quite different things to different people.

Drawing was the touchstone, outside of fashion, beyond argument, the
foundation of art.

Whole cultures were categorized by their use of line and form, some
pure and classic, some degenerate, confused. According to Ruskin, half the National
Gallery was well below par and would do the student serious educational damage: we
should look at Rembrandt and Michelangelo in moderation in case we picked up bad

It may now sound nutty to dismiss whole periods of art history and drawing, but
perhaps we are no better. We have become art tourists, afraid to make any noise that might cause embarrassment. We are there to appreciate, to consume uncritically. We look, but not too hard!!



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