Friday, 18 September 2015

DRAWING IN SILVER AND GOLD: LEONARDO TO JASPER JOHNS

A show that celebrates the art of metalwork and pays tribute to the steady-handed masters of this technique

Written by Sam Taylor
Sam-Taylor-colour-176There are many things that can be said about Leonardo’s Bust Of A Warrior, his perfectly precise, poised, petrifying metalpoint image of an angry old soldier preparing for another go round the battlefield. The crosses and delicate strokes carved into the surface to form his breastplate and face have survived for centuries, reminding us that Leonardo was the master of this art – the reason he leads the charge at this starry show. But mostly what can be said about it is that he must have had an incredibly steady grip. Because there can be no room for wobbly hangover hands when you have a sharp-ended stylus hovering over the surface.

It is difficult to imagine a world in which we cannot erase the line that has gone before. But for those artists who choose to work in this delicate medium, drawing – dragging really – a metal stylus over parchment or paper coated with gum and ash, ground bone or lead (not now, of course) one false move and you have to start all over again.

The British Museum has become rather clever of late at pulling together shows that both entertain and show off the stars from its extensive vaults – the Leonardo is one of these – while putting them in a contemporary context. The Jasper Johns, for instance, shows how the avant-garde utilised the medium in a modernist context. Or the Otto Dix Self- Portrait As A Draughtsman from 1933, the same year he was ousted from the Dresden Academy by the Nazis.

For the Germans, this stylus line can be traced back to Dürer. The chance to see the portrait of Dürer’s dog here is a cute treat, its small figure worked so beautifully as to make you feel you could stroke it.

In all, the exhibition leads us through six centuries of metalpoint use, the Renaissance being a high point and the turn of the 19th century and the invention of the graphite pencil being a low point. Rembrandt steals the romantic spotlight with his utterly beguiling, tender and seductive portraits of Saskia, all crafted during a three-day pilgrimage in June 1633 he made to Friesland to ask for her hand in marriage. She said yes. And presented with these precious tributes, who wouldn’t?

Until 6 December at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1: 020-7323 8299, www.britishmuseum.org



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