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On Drawing: An Exchange

In response to:

A Banner With a Strange Device from the December 19, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

In his article “A Banner with a Strange Device” [NYR, December 19, 1996], James Fenton, usually as prudent and brilliant as erudite, is wrong, I think, about drawing, in stating that “drawing has never been compulsory for genius. Caravaggio didn’t draw, Velázquez didn’t draw.” Velázquez was a great draughtsman, as one can see from his drawing of Cardinal Borja (Madrid, Academia San Fernando)—his sharp and assured line testifies to a continuous practice of drawing. The fact that other drawings by Velázquez didn’t survive (although nine are attributed to him)is due to extraneous causes:neglect and accidental destruction, causes which could apply to Caravaggio as well, whose work vanished with the small boat which brought him back from Malta to the coast of Naples (Porto Ercole), where he died in frantic search for it on July 18, 1610. There is no great artist who can’t draw. Drawing remains, as Ingres put it, “the probity of art.”

Avigdor Arikha
Paris, France

To the Editors:

In his essay “A Banner With a Strange Device,” James Fenton dilates on some painting techniques. May I remind him and the readers of the New York Review that:

1.Frottage (rubbing) was used and expanded by Max Ernst, serving as his principle lifelong method of painting and drawing, beginning with his seminal Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), 1929, a now well-known series of images wrested from the most varied and improbable rubbings. Sari Dienes, mentioned by Mr. Fenton, was a devoted friend and admirer during Max Ernst’s New York period (1941-1945).

2.Encaustic: Victor Brauner (1903- 1966), Parisian painter summarily mentioned in the same article, is admired by artists everywhere for his perfected encaustic technique. His still-fresh and luminous encaustics (1930s-1940s) may be seen in museums both here and abroad.

Dorothea Tanning
New York City

James Fenton replies:

A few years ago, I contracted with a boatbuilder in a remote Filipino barrio for a large fishing boat. Out of curiosity, I asked the man if he would show me a sketch of what he was going to do. He replied that such a sketch was a private thing, but that he would make one and give it to me after the boat was built. I watched the boatbuilder at work, and soon realized that no sketch was involved, and that he was working through a series of traditional procedures which rendered a technical diagram unnecessary. He could make a beautiful boat, but not a sketch of one. I had unintentionally made him ashamed to admit that he couldn’t draw. The captain of this admirable boat was a man with the gift for improvising Tagalog poems in that complex form, whereby in any couplet the last syllable of the first line rhymes with the penultimate syllable of the second. On any special occasion—and special occasions were always cropping up—he would stand up and regale the company with an elaborate-sounding ode. And his secret was that he could neither read nor write.

From the boatbuilder and the captain I learned that, in art, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Avigdor Arikha says that there is no great artist who can’t draw. I suppose we are not talking about sculptors here, for it is surely not hard to imagine a sculptor who can model superbly, carve excellently, but draw only indifferently. And in the same way, I do not see why it should be so shocking to discover that there are painters whose drawings are not so satisfactory, just as there are many cases of draughtsmen whose paintings are of minor interest. Baccio Bandinelli was a marvelous draughtsman (so Michelangelo thought) but couldn’t paint. Andrea del Sarto was a marvelous painter who, so Vasari clearly thought, was unsatisfactory as a draughtsman—good, but not nearly as good as he should have been. Jacopo Sansovino was a first-rate sculptor who did models in clay and wax which both Andrea and Perugino painted from, thereby avoiding the necessity of using drawings or inventing compositions. One of these wax models, the Deposition made for Perugino, has survived (in the Victoria and Albert Museum). Bruce Boucher suggests in his monograph on Sansovino that Perugino was happy to use this kind of help because his own drawing skills had been criticized. Andrea also caused a stir by adapting figures from Dürer engravings for his own use. This was thought not wrong practice but evidence of a certain poverty of invention.

I didn’t say Caravaggio couldn’t draw, only that he didn’t. In this I am supported by the testimony of Carel van Mander (1604):

Therefore he [Caravaggio] will not make a single brushstroke without the close study of life, which he copies and paints. This is surely no bad way of achieving a good end:for to paint after drawing, however close it may be to life, is not as good as following Nature with all her various colours.

In other words, one should begin by copying the colors of nature, rather than translating into black and white. It is clear from the criticisms recorded by his contemporaries in Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s account (1672) that it was his lack of evident draughtsmanship that was considered Caravaggio’s Achilles’ heel:”The moment the model was taken from him, his mind became empty,” says Bellori.

Arikha has misunderstood the story of Caravaggio’s last days. He was in Malta, where he was put into prison but managed to escape at night by means of a rope ladder, according to Giovanni Baglioni’s account (circa 1625). It seems very unlikely that Caravaggio would have had his life’s work with him, let alone been able to carry a portfolio or two of drawings down a rope ladder in the dark. From Malta he fled to Sicily, where Bellori has him rapidly moving on from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo. From there he fled to Naples, where his enemies caught up with him and slashed his face so badly he was unrecognizable. Now he set forth again, in a small boat, “con alcune poche robe“—with some few things—but was arrested on landing at Porto Ercole, and held in prison, in a case of mistaken identity. On his release he became frantic, looking for the felucca which had been carrying his things. The accounts have him dying of a fever contracted in the sun. Septicemia seems more likely.

His possessions had not disappeared as Arikha says. Caravaggio was an important man, and an inventory had been made of his belongings. The Viceroy of Naples saw that the inventory included a painting of John the Baptist, and he wrote to the authorities sequestering the contents of the inventory, and in particular the painting. It is quite possible that this work was later sent to Spain and has survived. (For the text of the Viceroy’s letter, but not, alas, the inventory, see Burlington Magazine, Vol. XCIII, 1951, pp. 202-203.) Since the fate of Caravaggio’s possessions was taken so seriously, I see no reason to state that his “work vanished.” It is much more likely that, as his contemporaries seem to claim, he approached the canvas brush in hand, and there were few or no drawings.

When Velázquez died, the contents of his house were inventoried in great detail, and that list has been studied by many scholars because it of course gives a highly reliable picture of the artist’s material circumstances, and because several unfinished canvases are mentioned. I lack both the Spanish and the scholarship to interpret the list, but I cannot believe that scholars who have been looking hard for evidence about Velázquez’s drawings would have overlooked such an obvious source. Number 598 in the inventory is interesting: “Un libro de dibujo y estampas,” a book of sketches and prints. Presumably, since Velázquez didn’t make prints, this is an album of other people’s work—or has been taken as such.

José López-Rey, in his various studies of the painter, suggests that there are three missing groups of his drawings: those he made as a child, those he made recording art he had seen in Venice, and the copies of paintings in Rome. In the latest edition of López-Rey’s catalogue raisonné, recently published by Taschen and the Wildenstein Institute, the number of attributed drawings has shrunk to four. Two of these are early sketches of a woman, perhaps his wife. One is the portrait of Cardinal Borja, supposedly a study for a painting of which only copies exist. The only sheet which can be connected with a known painting by Velázquez is number 74-75 in the catalog, whose verso resembles the figure of Spinola in the painting The Surrender of Breda. But this is such a slight work as to tell us nothing much about Velázquez’s graphic style.

Arikha says that Velázquez was a great draughtsman. I don’t doubt that he could have been, but it seems that he wasn’t, after childhood, particularly interested in drawing as the basis for his own work, and that he did not, even in so complex a composition as The Surrender of Breda or Las Meninas, draw the thing first before transferring it onto the canvas. He changed his mind as he went along, in both cases. It is believed that such a direct way of working shows the influence of Caravaggio on Velázquez. Francisco Pacheco, the artist’s father-in-law, tells us that Velázquez “always works from the life,” even when depicting the landscape in a portrait. That Velázquez did oil sketches of landscapes is clear from the views of the Villa Medicis in Rome. That he made oil sketches of heads is clear from numbers 45 and 86 in the catalog. And the portrait of Jose Nieto (number 91) could well have been used as reference material for the figure standing in the doorway in Las Meninas. But if we look at Las Meninas itself, what do we see? An artist standing at an easel, painting his sitters—precisely as Pacheco claimed Velázquez did (although the mirror is a novelty). Pacheco is believed to be echoing Velázquez when he writes:

…I keep to nature for everything and it would be best of all if I could always have it before me, not only for heads, bodies, hands and feet, but also for cloths, silks and everything else. That is what Michelangelo Caravaggio did with such success.

To my utter astonishment, Arikha himself, writing about Velázquez in The New York Review [November 6, 1986], said that he was “one of the first artists to understand the importance of painting directly from life, and he did so from the start.” “Looking closely at his canvases,” Arikha says, “I think we can see that Velázquez painted directly, without making a preparatory drawing, without ‘calculating’; it seems clear that he started his painting directly with the brush….”

I’m grateful to Dorothea Tanning for pointing out Ernst’s parentage of frottage.

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