Friday, 25 August 2017

Raphael: The Drawings

This exhibition of the renaissance master’s drawings reveals the scope of his experimentation and ambition

Written by Sandra Smith


To study Raphael’s drawings is to get under the skin of a complex artist. Urgency, exploration and ambition coexist alongside delicacy, fluidity and introspection. Each image is an effortless microcosm of impetuosity and reasoned skill. Indeed, little effort is needed to mirror the original adrenaline rush accompanying those ideas worked out on paper prior to an inevitable refinement of subject, meaning and composition. Sandra-Smith-colour-176

The career of this prolific and influential artist began in Umbria. By the age of 17 he was an independent master. His early profession in Florence was followed by a lengthy period in Rome, where he worked on major projects such as Vatican frescoes, before dying in 1520, aged 37.

The intensity with which Raphael thought and responded to people and the world around him is evident in the 120 works forming the Ashmolean’s summer exhibition, which covers the artist’s brief career and comes from the museum’s own collection as well as Vienna’s Albertina Museum and other international and private collectors. Opening with Portrait of a Youth, by many considered to be a self-portrait, the simplicity of strokes belies the intensity of the gaze. This modern drawing is one of many black chalk images displayed throughout a trio of galleries.

Raphael also favoured red chalk, which has a wonderful earthy quality, while there are frequent examples of pen and ink, and charcoal, as well as his use of a blind stylus. This favoured technique allowed him to first fix his ideas on paper via indentations.

The male nude is well represented here revealing Raphael’s heightened understanding of musculature and physical form whether in repose, staggering or anticipating combat.

Just as powerful, however, are his robed female figures. A Seated Mother Embracing her Child and Studies for the Madonna of Francis I include a majesty of drapery, the depth and tactile values of which showcase the mastery of the artist.

The expressiveness of Raphael on paper is compounded by a restless inventiveness. Internalised emotions are translated into sensitive images, creating for the onlooker a sense of the artist’s journey as he changes, modifies and enhances his subjects until reaching a point of satisfaction and, in this way, we are encouraged to think, question and empathise with the mindset of a man whose every drawing inspires.

Once in a lifetime is an overused cliché yet one that is apt and accurate for this stunning exhibition. But visitors, be prepared to stay awhile. For each of these numerous images demands and deserves time and concentration.

Until 3 September. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford: 01865-278002; www.ashmolean.org 


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