Tracing the Century: Drawing as a catalyst for change exhibition review

We attended this fab exhibition at Tate Liverpool this weekend. Some really interesting drawings, picked up on a couple of new techniques I want to experiment with, discovered some new artists and revisited old favourites, saw some stunning animations and went away with a head full of ideas and inspiration. Sorry for no pictures but they’re all copyright – but follow the links if you want to know more.

The exhibition explored different themes and selected different artists who’s work paralleled each others or crossed paths while being linked by having the same starting point for their investigations.

Imagined Worldscapes included artists that used the real observed environment for their starting point and end up in very different places. Cezanne, Paul Klee, Richard Hamilton were used to illustrate an approach that held true to a representational image of the landscape but developed their drawings in directions of particular interest to them. These were placed in contrast to artist Lee Bontecou’s exquisite ethereal abstract compositions that explored landscapes of compressed space, time and consciousness.

Artists who worked from direct observation of the landscape compared the parallel works of Kokoshka’s naturalistic pencil studies of Tower Bridge and the imagined abstracted field drawings in charcoal of Bob Law that related more to this emotional response to lying in a field in the English landscape than his visual observation as was Kokoshka’s drawings. Included here were drawings by Picasso, Giacometti and Frank Auerbach – 3 of my old favourites. It was really interesting to see a unfinished drawing/painting by Gicometti that showed is painting processes. I didn’t think he would have bothered with preliminary drawings prior to painting but it seems he did. What was interesting though was to see just how his ‘looking’ and careful observation did not end after his prelim sketch but changes and development continued all through his painting process – if you can separate the drawing from the painting that is! As for the Auerbach – well – I just love any artist whose passion, energy and manic compulsion for what they do is so evident in the work.

The curator chose to explore how drawings approach the investigation of the human interior by comparing and contrasting two very different artists who made drawings for very different reasons. Sir William Orpen’s anatomical studies of the human muscles and ligaments (beautiful drawings in their own right) were used as teaching aids in the first decade of the 20 century while de Kooning’s manic blind drawings show a frenzied energised expression of his imagined emotional response to the inner emotional life of his model.

The exhibition moved on to look at how the human body has been used to express trauma, aggression and violence. This chapter of the exhibition displayed the well known drawings by Henry Moore done in the underground shelters during WW2 depicting people wrapped in darkness in open mouthed fear with the large scale drawings of Matthew Monahan. His strongly graphic drawings looked skeletal or like findings from archeological digs. His technique was interesting and the exhibition interpretation gave me a clue about his approach of covering paper with black oil paint, folding the paper in half and scoring the back hard with a fork. This has resulted in strongly contrasted black/white marks – I must try this out for myself.

Moving into the big gallery across the hall were drawings exploring intimacy and sex. There were quite a few drawings by Andy Warhol including some of his ‘sewn drawings’ that i had not seen before. These were made up of 4 photos stitched together with a sewing machine and depicted quite intimite photos of his young lovers. This sat alongside some lovely line drawings of his close friend Havid Hockney. The drawings that grabbed me and I think dominated this section were a series of 3 large scale ink on paper drawings of the human form by Marlene Dumas. Once again, another artist I had not known of, I was so impressed by the raw power of the images. Quite difficult to look at, they were personal expressions of her emotions or state of mind rather than simply a representation. This is exactly what my course ‘Mystery of the human form’ is all about. It makes for an awkward moment as they can be challenging to look at but that’s what makes them so powerful and engaging. You definitely go away moved and emotionally engaged!
This section also contained a few small drawings by Hannah Wilke and Cornelia Parker that explicitly explored sexuality with some quite graphic images – or where they? Perhaps it was the titles leading our thoughts and imagination in interpreting the mirror-image ink splodge drawings? A debate for another day.

The exhibition moved on to my favourite subject when talking about drawing – Drawing in space. Exploring artworks that challenged the notion that drawing was there simply as a preliminary to painting or to illustrate ideas, and should be seen as a thing or object in it’s own right. These artworks on display marked the moments when drawings, charcoal, pencil…..line… became 3 dimensional. Very exciting concept that artists are still exploring and using today. It was interesting to go back and visit some of those drawings and sculptures that shattered those boundaries back in the early part of last century. This section included works by Julio Gonzalez, David Smith, Richard Turtle and others.

The final section explored artists who make drawings about politics, war, propaganda and protest. This is not my favourite subject matter in art and I usually avoid it but the drawings by Nancy Sparo and her husband Leon Golub interested me. I thought of them as 20th century Goya’s depicting the horrors of war – this time Vietnam and other more recent wars rather than the Spanish inquisition of the 18 century. There was a vase by Grayson Perry, and 3 animations that really blew me away. Here I discovered another artist I should have known about, being a fellow South African of roughly my own age – William Kentridge. 3 stunning drawn animations about the effects of Apartheid, white guilt and the lot – territory I know only too well. His process of animating charcoal drawings was stunning and captivating, his subject matter engrossing, his style of drawing powerful and storytelling and imagination just boundless.

At the end of the exhibition was a delightful little pen portrait study by Lucian Freud, a long written piece by Tracy Emin that I thought a bit out of place as I think the curator could have selected more appropriate works by her that would have fitted into the exhibition narrative a lot better. Lastly a few other pieces that I could not figure at all of a gridded up white canvas with black lines along with a couple of other water-colour and ink abstract studies which seem to have been thrown in at the end.

However a thought provoking exhibition which sent us home excited and inspired.