Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Secret of Drawing: The Line of Enquiry

by Drew Martin
The Secret of Drawing: The Line of Enquiry is the first of four episodes from 2005 by the BBC, which takes a closer look at drawing. This episode begins with the narrator and host, Andrew Graham-Dixon, saying:

Once upon a time, the ability to draw was seen as the first and most essential skill of any artist. But in the age of the unmade bed and the pickled shark, drawing is widely perceived as an old-fashioned activity. Many modern art schools don’t even teach it; preferring to arm their students with digital or video cameras. I’d like to challenge the tedious modern prejudice that it’s trendy not to draw, and that those who do draw are sad reactionaries stuck in a dead past. I think the exact opposite is true. Drawing is the single most fruitful and vital artistic skill at work in the world today.

I really like this series but Graham-Dixon's unmade bed and pickled shark comment takes a jab at Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst despite the fact that Emin always speaks very highly about life drawing and that she is quite good at it, and drawing is essential to Hirst's creative process. The drawing section of his website starts off with this passage:

Drawing has always been an essential part of Hirst’s creative process. Whilst his sculptural works are initially thought out through detailed sketches – often including precise dimensions and fabrication notes – he also draws obsessively for the sake of drawing. Numbering over 1, 500, this body of work points to Hirst’s use of the medium as a means of refining and exploring the ideas that sit at the heart of his entire artistic output. He also describes it as a good way to explore complicated ideas without incurring the costs involved in the fabrication of new works.

Otherwise, I love the insight of this BBC production, which tries to elevate the act of drawing to scientific research and a visual philosophy.

The first artist interviewed is actually one of Britain's leading heart surgeons, Francis Wells, who uses drawing to not only prepare for the details of an operation but to also explain a replay of the procedure to his team. He actually uses blood from the open chest cavity of the patient to draw on paper while he waits for the heart to stabilize.

Not surprisingly, Wells is fascinated by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. He studies them to see what da Vinci was trying to explain through his heart studies, and even uses things he has learned from the centuries-old works for his modern surgery. 

Graham-Dixon starts to formulate a kind of da Vinci code question...Do you think these drawings contain within them other things that people haven’t quite tweaked yet? To which Wells replies:

Well I am sure there are. One has to be careful in not romancing it too much and saying that the solutions to all of our problems are here. They’re not.  But I think the essence of what we‘re seeing is someone who is absolutely, conspicuously honest. They’re searching for the truth. Nowadays, by thinking about his observations that he made and taking it seriously, it can take you down lines of thought that you might work out yourself with other information that’s available.

What follows is a look at the start of a fascinating group in 1603 Rome. The Accademia dei Lincei (The Academy of the Linxes, for its all-seeing eye) gave "new impetus to the Renaissance cross-pollination of fine art and the natural sciences." It is even credited for having established the ground rules for empirical science through the Paper Museum, a collection of thousands of drawings of natural and man-made objects. The founder of the Paper Museum, Cassiano dal Pozzo encouraged that we look at everything with the understanding that sometimes insight comes from when you focus on just one thing. Drawing it again and again to get to its very essence.

No progress can ever be made without finding out everything you can about everything there is.

And yes, that is a drawing of a man with a penis on his head. Apparently, at one time it was a sign of good luck.

The great 18
th century scientist-artist George Stubbs followed in the footsteps of da Vinci's curiosity and Cassiano's thoroughness and in turn, discovered much more by studying horses than he needed to know to paint horses. Through comparative anatomy he asked the question that Charles Darwin answered in the theory of evolution; about how humans relate to other species.

This one-hour episode covers even more ground, including John Russell who drew the moon in the 18th century through a telescope with such accuracy that his five-foot-square drawing could easily be mistaken for a photograph, and John James Audobon whose book The Birds of America is one of the most impressive (and massive) collection of drawings ever printed.

The remainder of the hour covers the drawings of J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and several other artists.

The full documentary of this first episode can be watched here: