Mastering old drawings

New York art aficionados are currently being spoiled with two once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions of old master drawings*, as both the Met and the Morgan have shows on display. Despite drawings not being entirely my thing, I went to see both in the same week, and have subsequently been horrifying all my arty friends by grumbling about one of them…

To be fair, it’s not an entirely straightforward comparison. Drawn to Greatness at the Morgan is an encyclopaedic celebration of the collection of drawings assembled by Eugene Thaw, with around 150 pieces spanning the 15th to 20th centuries, whilst the Met’s Michelangelo: Divine Draughtsman and Designer  includes almost as many of Michelangelo’s drawings as the total count of the Morgan show. For me, this is way too many – there’s enough content there for about five separate exhibitions, and whilst I understand the curatorial coup which assembling such a masterful montage represents I think several smaller shows would have been much better.

Not only does it get rather samey quite fast, but of course the salivatory reviews have driven the holiday-season hoardes into the museum, making it impossible to spend any quality time with the artwork. Even if one is able to take advantage of a rare quiet moment in the galleries, you would need to allocate hours to take it all in properly. Furthermore, the highly delicate nature of many of these objects means that they will not go on public display again for years (in some cases possibly even decades) making this a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of us, and probably denying a whole lot of other people the chance ever to see them.

By contrast, the Morgan’s exhibition is wonderfully varied, showcasing a significant chunk of the history and range of drawing practices. The two galleries tend to be quieter, allowing for a more contemplative interaction with the art, but even a quick browse around reveals far more than Michelangelo permits. (It’s possible that this is also a generational chance to see the Thaw collection out in force, but at least the artists contained therein are represented in other collections elsewhere).

All this notwithstanding I’m still happy to have seen both – the few Michelangelo drawings I was able to look at in detail were obviously remarkable, the way they’ve included the Sistine Chapel ceiling as illuminated panels is quite delightful, and I’m sure I can guess which exhibition people will be talking about for years to come. However, if you want my recommendation for what to see at the Met just now, both the Rubin and David Hockney shows are superb (although obviously you should still pop into the Michelangelo show while you’re there!).

*I had just finished writing this when I noticed that there’s actually a third Old Master drawings show on at the moment, also at the Met – Leonardo to Matisse, from the Robert Lehman collection. Guess what I’ll be doing when I next have a spare moment at the museum…

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