Drawing the Line

Kenneth Hayes Miller’s etching “Leaving the Shop” (top, right) and Feliks Topolski’s gestural drawing “Neville  Chamberlain” (bottom, left) were featured in two summer exhibits at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery.

Feliks Topolski’s gestural drawing “Neville Chamberlain” was featured in two summer exhibits at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery.

Drawing employs the most intimate of media: a pencil, a pen, a piece of chalk, a sheet of paper. These materials, so easily accessible and normally used for writing, become in the hands of a visual artist a different means of communication. With none of the preparation needed for painting or sculpture, an artist can express the idea of the moment. Transposing the intangible onto ephemera itself, it almost seems as if the viewer watches the proverbial light bulb going on above the artist’s head.

This kind of expressive line could be found in abundance in the summer show at the Fine Arts Gallery’s new location in Cohen Memorial Hall on the Peabody campus. Five Centuries of Drawing: A Selection from the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery Collection consisted of more than 50 drawings by a wide range of European and North American artists. Many of the works had more than a passing connection to Vanderbilt. Some of the drawings represented relatively recent gifts by Thomas Brumbaugh, professor of fine arts, emeritus; a number of works were by Eugene Biel-Bienne, an Austrian artist who fled the Nazis and later taught at Vanderbilt from 1959 to 1963; two medical illustrations were by Susan Wilkes, who worked in the medical illustration department of Vanderbilt Hospital in the 1930s and ’40s; and a triptych in graphite and shellac on paper was by alumnus and contemporary artist Creighton Michael, MA’76.

“Some of these had been exhibited before,” says Joseph Mella, director of the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, “and some I had wanted to do something with, but they had not fit in thematically [with prior exhibits]. We had several hundred drawings. I thought it would be interesting for a summer exhibit to take a more historical approach.”

While it is true that drawing often serves to help the artist gather ideas in service to what may ultimately become a painting or three-dimensional work, it is also true that many are meant to stand alone as finished pieces.

The exhibit featured both kinds of work—from sketches by 18th- and 19th-century artists such as George Romney and Benjamin Haydon to finished pastels by little-known late 19th-century French artist Cécile Chennevière-Gaudez and American Gloria DeArcangelis, whose 1984 work “Masculine” measures 65 by 50 inches.

The back wall of the gallery showcased six works by Biel-Bienne, whose painting “The Mockery of Christ” hangs in a rear stairwell at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The influence of German Expressionism was evident in these big, bold drawings, thus providing a jolt before entering the back gallery, which housed an exhibit of American art also from the Fine Arts Gallery’s collection.

American Art at Vanderbilt highlighted painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography drawn from the gallery’s collection of nearly 1,500 works by American artists. Most of the names were well known: Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Stuart Davis, Childe Hassam, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, among others. One rarely exhibited piece by composer John Cage was a plexigram, a silkscreen on multiple pieces of Plexiglas, titled “(Not wanting to say anything about Marcel).”

“After Marcel Duchamp died, reporters were calling important artists for comments,” Mella explains. “[American artist] Jasper Johns said, ‘I have nothing to say about Marcel,’ so Cage took that quote and created a piece that says a lot about Marcel. Like many of Cage’s visual pieces, his methodology involved flipping coins and the Chinese Book of Changes, so [the imagery] is dictated by that.”

Five Centuries of Drawing and American Art at Vanderbilt were on view at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery through July.

Find out more: www.vanderbilt.edu/gallery

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