The Little Bang
Small, simple drawing show offers big rewards
Before the 2008 economic collapse, art museums--fat with healthy endowment returns and contributions from wealthy donors--were in hot pursuit of the biggest, and most spectacular shows. So-called "blockbuster" exhibitions commanded high ticket prices, and room-sized sculptures allowed museums to show off their expensive new additions.
While the good times were very good for museums, the bad times are much worse. Museums cut back staff, quashed plans for future exhibitions, and started relying on their own holdings for shows instead of borrowing work from elsewhere.
For all these reasons, the new Walters Museum exhibit Expanding Horizons: Recent Additions to the Drawings Collection is a refreshing reminder of what a museum can do when it relies on its traditional strengths. Small, simply hung, and accompanied by minimal, if still informative, descriptions, the show presents 19th- and early 20th-century drawings by French painters and illustrators (plus one Belgian), many of whom are well represented in the Walters' collections. As a result, the show both allows you to see the drawings of French painters who worked in a wide variety of styles and to see the work of other, lesser-known artists whose drawings suggest something about French society at one of its many artistic heights.
The most delightful finds in the show are four watercolor illustrations by Prosper Mérimée, who is best known for his novella Carmen, which was turned into an opera by Georges Bizet. The undated piece "Homme au tutu" shows a thin, likely older man in a light blue tutu and wearing small wings and tall white boots. He places one hand on his hip and the other is upturned, making him at once vulnerable and fearless. His downturned head, however, suggests seriousness, as if Mérimée is trying to show the man as an outcast from society.
Mérimée's three companion pieces, all drawings of self-important men, put the image of the man in a tutu in perspective. Instead of privileging the strange, Mérimée shows a matador, a soldier, and a man in "seven-league" boots, each as pensive and showy as the man in a tutu. The other sketches in the show--including ink-on-paper drawings of children playing by Gustave Doré and of a man on a "third-class carriage" by Henry Somm--are among the strongest pieces on display, in part because they capture a world that often doesn't survive the meticulousness of the painter.
While the studies for paintings may not be as immediately compelling, they are useful in part because they can be compared with paintings in the Walters' collection. Four graphite drawings by Jean-Léon Gérôme, including a rare preliminary study of 1882's "The Tulip Folly," show how Gérôme explored the shape and position of figures in his landscapes. Other sketches in the show include Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier's "Four Figural Studies," which show the relationship between the sketch and the painting.
The 21 drawings in the show are all recent acquisitions, and 19 of them come from Joseph McCrindle, a collector of paintings and drawings and the founder of the Transatlantic Review, one of a number of prominent mid-century journals that brought together American and European writers. When McCrindle died in 2008, he donated his substantial collection to several dozen museums, rather than following the usual practice of picking a single museum to carry on his legacy. By sending his drawings to museums where they would contemplate existing holdings, he put the work ahead of his own legacy.
The show would have been even stronger if the paintings had appeared alongside the sketches. "The Tulip Folly" is currently on loan, and will not be on view again until June 2011. While the donations from McCrindle and Edward Wilson, who gave two Gérôme sketches to the museum, are important additions to the Walters' prominent holdings of Gérôme's paintings and sketches, the museum's financial troubles forced it to cancel a major international retrospective of Gérôme. Instead, the exhibit will skip the East Coast entirely, appearing only at the Getty in Los Angeles and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the two institutions that co-organized the exhibition with Madrid's Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
The diversity of this collection means that it will not likely be seen as a single body again, but this signals the wisdom of McCrindle's collecting habits rather than a weakness. After a decade of bigger and better, it is refreshing to see a show content with being small, filling in the gaps in art history and showing that even the smallest pieces--like a sketch of a man in a tutu and wings--contribute to an understanding of the past.
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