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Review: ‘Mind’s Eye’ at the DMA

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier_Le FumeureditErnest Meissonier, The Smoker (A Man of the First Empire), 1873, watercolor and gouache on paper (detail).

Artworks on paper — drawings and paintings using pencil, watercolor, pastel, chalk, gouache, ink and charcoal — are the short stories of the visual-art world. For centuries, they got little respect. They’ve been traditionally undervalued in comparison to more ‘major’ paintings or sculptures — just as short stories are seen to lack the heft and import of a novel. So let’s think of Mind’s Eye: Masterworks on Paper from David to Cezanne — the Dallas Museum of Art‘s latest search through its archives and local, private collections — as a short-story anthology.

As viewers/readers, we get to discover works in the DMA’s collection that have never (or rarely) been viewed publicly (a significant portion of the show comes from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection’s holdings in Impressionism and post-Impressionism). We’re re-acquainted with old favorites and some true giants. And when it comes to 19th-century-early-20th century art, we see some of the best of private collectors hereabouts (drawings by Gericault, Delacroix, Degas, Burne-Jones). But with more than 120 works from 70 artists — does all this hold together as an exhibition? As a coherent statement, and not just as a way for the DMA to fill the galleries this summer, in the long haul between touring shows?

Prior to the 19th century when magazines fueled demand for short stories, they barely existed other than as excerpts or precursors to a full-length narrative. Edgar Allan Poe, a magazine editor, was the first person to advocate for them as a stand-alone art form, arguing the story’s tight focus actually made it superior to the novel. But even today, short-story collections rarely sell as well as novels.

Ditto for these artworks. Artists typically didn’t save their dashed-off drawings, partly because they were just worksheets, partly because patrons typically didn’t buy them. But in the 1800s, the quick and the incomplete became newly prized for their own sake. It was a change in market and a change in sensibility. Sketches and drawings were re-thought as more than just exercises serving the ‘real’ artwork that came later. This was the century, after all, that gave us photography — a medium on paper that, in its own way, shares some of the qualities of draftsmanship: vivid detail, speed of execution, sense of immediacy and atmosphere.

Even for the Romantics — who were mostly pre-daguerreotype — capturing the ephemeral was seen as drawing’s new, great asset. Early on in Mind’s Eye, there are studies by Eugene Delacroix of a galloping Arab horseman and several burnoosed figures in Morocco. They are such a break from the more posed, more formal renderings that have come before; it’s as if drawing were a freshly invented technology that an excited Delacroix was taking out for a spin, seeing all it could do. With a gestural style that evokes casual repose or explosive energy, Delacroix is after vitality more than form.

cezanneeditPaul Cezanne, Environs D’Aix, 1900-06, watercolor on paper.

Yet it’s telling that in their preface to the DMA’s exhibition catalog, co-curators Olivier Meslay (DMA’s senior curator of European and American Art) and William Jordan (Meadows Museum’s founding director) feel the need, still, to address the issue of the medium’s stature. “‘Why would I want a drawing when I can afford a painting?'” they quote a wealthy man asking. Their reply: “We have decided to try to answer with this exhibition.”

Only they don’t — not entirely, not with a spelled-out argument, at any rate. “We have tried in this volume to let the objects speak for themselves.” And then they recount some of the many different functions that works on paper can fulfill (a learning exercise, a personal note, a planning tool, a virtuosic display). As even its title indicates, Mind’s Eye does treat these artworks, in part, as preliminary or subsidiary efforts. The exhibition is promoted as our chance to see inside an artist’s thinking as he creates, and there are several items — notably a Renoir nude, a van Gogh cafe and a Raffaeilli portrait — that may well be the beginnings of later paintings.

Of course, some objects do speak for themselves, quite eloquently, as stand-alone achievements. There’s a fascinating watercolor by Rudolf von Alt, for instance, that could have been painted this year, it’s so evocatively, unfinishedly contemporary. There’s an entire room of Degas’ jewel-like pastels that’s not only a deep pleasure — I could sit in it for an afternoon — it’s convincing proof Degas would have been a major artist without a single ‘major’ oil painting to his name.

But this exhibition tangles with a key difficulty in making any wider case for ‘works on paper.’ Not only did these drawings have different purposes, the term ‘works on paper’ encompasses no single medium, era, genre, school or style. Meslay and Jordan would have to make an aesthetic argument accounting for the ghostly solidity of a Cezanne watercolor (above), Odilon Redon’s dusty pastels, the electric ripples of Honore Daumier’s caricatures (below, left), the somber mysteries of Seurat’s charcoals — and on and on.

honoreditRather than define or defend, Meslay and Jordan compile. Mind’s Eye is, they admit, something of an old-fashioned, chronological survey. It covers a sprawling, transformative century and a half, running from the French Revolution to the birth of modernism. The curators have arranged “the entries to allow a sense of historical flow and interaction” — meaning, what really links all of these works is simply time. DMA director Max Anderson acknowledges as much in his foreword to the catalog: a) the DMA has never had a curator focused solely on works on paper and b) Mind’s Eye is the “first exhibition to take stock of what has been achieved by this largely random process” of acquisition by local connoisseurs.

So as an exhibition, Mind’s Eye is really a starting point — a preparatory sketch, if you will. With enough works on the walls, you can find some thematic connections or stylistic influences linking almost any artist or group — from David to Bonheur to Touolouse-Lautrec to Leger.

Honore Daumier, An Actor, c. 1865, pen and ink on paper.

This is hardly a comprehensive survey, however. One eminent figure who’s missing: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, arguably a titan equal to Delacroix in draftsmanship. In 1833, he confronted his rival at a party and declared, “Drawing, sir, drawing is honesty! Drawing, sir, drawing is honor!” He became so agitated, he spilled coffee all over himself and stomped out. For Ingres, drawing seems to have represented something close to what photography holds in many people’s minds today — it functions as an accurate record — while Delacroix championed a more impulsive, flamboyant art. For a sense of Ingres’ neoclassical mastery in Mind’s Eye, we must settle for a pencil portrait by the engraver Louis-Pierre Heinriquel-Dupont.

There’s also a tremendously influential outlier who’s missing: William Blake. But as Meslay explained afterwards to my question, we are Blake-less hereabouts. In fact, in America, samples of Blake’s work are almost entirely on either coast (Yale’s Center for British Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, the Morgan Library and the Huntington in California).

The question of what area artworks were simply available to the curators brings up another story Mind’s Eye relates, one that Anderson hails in his foreword and the curators repeat: Mind’s Eye is really about North Texas collectors. In which case, North Texas connoisseurs have pretty much pursued the conventional history of the period: The 19th century belonged to French artists. They’re overwhelmingly represented here — in addition to the ones already mentioned, there’s Gericault, Gerome, Lhermitte, Manet, Morisot, Bonnard, Vuillard, Rodin. Meslay reported during the press preview that this was our area of strength, so that’s what the curators went with. When we get into the ‘decadents,’ the pre-Raphaelites and the moderns, we do get a smattering of Dutch, English, Austrian and Swiss, including some of the exhibition’s most important albeit familiar works, including the DMA’s Egon Schiele and Piet Mondrian watercolors.

Still, if the intent is to encourage (and, of course, to thank) the collectors, Mind’s Eye does present some encouraging eyefuls. For me, the most fascinating items include an unusual Edouard Vuillard triptych that’s only been shown at the DMA 25 years ago, the aforementioned roomful of Degas, Seurat’s moody In the Park, the privately owned Cezannes, the von Alt and a portrait by Meissionier — two artists I admit I was completely unfamiliar with — plus pencil sketches, one each by Henri Gaudier Brzeska and Modigliani, that are very different studies in an elegant, economy of line.

Mind’s Eye is like that — a summer garage sale worth picking through and poring over. 

vuillardedit

Edouard Vuillard, La Place Vintimille (triptych), 1908-1909, pastel on paper on wood

  • Lauren

    Very insightful!

  • Jerome Weeks

    Thanks much. I should add that Gaile Robinson of the ‘Star-Telegram’ just prodded my very bad memory. Ack. I AM familiar with Meissonier — as anyone would be who’s read Ross King’s art history, ‘The Judgment of Paris.’ He was the leading academic-historical artist of his age, a painter who put the ‘obsessive’ in obsessive-compulsive. It’s embarrassing that I forgot a painter so successful and so manic he’d have his servants pull carts all over his muddy courtyard just to get the right look of a battlefield. Ironically, King’s book suffers from pretty much the same problem – piling on details in the hope of finding a richer meaning. So I’ll use that as my excuse for blanking on Meissonier.