The elo­quence of line

Caro­line Bu­gler ad­mires the beauty and ex­pres­sive power of Raphael’s draw­ings

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

Raphael (1483–1520) was a golden boy, blessed with a su­per­abun­dance of tal­ent, en­ergy, charm and good looks. al­though he died when he was only 37, he man­aged to squeeze an as­ton­ish­ing amount of work into a brief ca­reer that started when he was barely in his teens, while he was liv­ing in his na­tive Urbino. he was only 25 when sum­moned to Rome by pope Julius II in 1508, yet he had al­ready car­ried out im­por­tant artis­tic projects in the cen­tral Ital­ian ci­ties of Città di Castello, pe­ru­gia, Siena and Florence and made the ac­quain­tance of the lead­ing Ital­ian artists of the time, in­clud­ing Michelan­gelo and leonardo da Vinci.

The pa­pal Court was a hot­bed of artis­tic ri­valry and in­trigue— the fa­mously cur­mud­geonly Michelan­gelo, who was at work on the Sis­tine Chapel, cer­tainly felt threat­ened by the bril­liant new­comer—but Raphael man­aged to nav­i­gate his way through the artis­tic pol­i­tics and was given the pres­ti­gious task of dec­o­rat­ing the pope’s pri­vate rooms in the Vat­i­can palace.

The vir­tu­os­ity of Raphael’s fres­coes and oil paint­ings is ev­i­dent at first glance, but the draw­ings of­fer a more in­ti­mate in­sight into his cre­ative process as well as ev­i­dence of his ex­tra­or­di­nary skill with pen, sty­lus and chalk. Some 120 of them are on show in this ex­hi­bi­tion: 50 come from the ash­molean’s own hold­ings and they’re sup­ple­mented by rarely seen ex­am­ples from in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing the al­bertina in Vi­enna and the Uf­fizi in Florence.

Raphael used draw­ing for a va­ri­ety of pur­poses: to ex­plore ini­tial thoughts; to ob­serve fig­ures from life; to work out and mod­ify poses and ges­tures be­fore com­mit­ting them to paint; to dis­cover the ex­pres­sive po­ten­tial of the dif­fer­ent me­dia of char­coal, chalk, ink and met­al­point; to re­solve en­tire com­po­si­tions; and as the means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing his in­ten­tions to an army of as­sis­tants.

he also some­times sent draw­ings as gifts to in­flu­en­tial pa­trons and con­nois­seurs as friendly proof of his mas­tery. he gave one of them—a study of nude men—to Dürer and the Ger­man artist an­no­tated it with an in­scrip­tion stat­ing that Raphael made it ‘to dis­play his hand’. a vivid ex­am­ple of his dex­ter­ity, it shows the same bearded model in dif­fer­ent poses, the red chalk ap­plied with a harder touch for the sharply de­fined con­tours and softer strokes for the finely mod­elled mus­cu­la­ture.

all the draw­ings on show de­pict fig­ures—bod­ies in their en­tirety or in part, faces, hands

and drap­ery—and the way they move and in­ter­act. There is al­ways more em­pha­sis on gesture and pose than on the spa­tial con­struc­tion and one of the most elo­quent sheets clearly il­lus­trates the de­tailed thought that Raphael gave to this rhetor­i­cal as­pect of his art.

A black-chalk study for two of the fore­ground fig­ures in his

Trans­fig­u­ra­tion al­tar­piece com­mis­sioned by Pope Cle­ment VII, it shows the heads and hands of two Apos­tles, one young and one old, their con­trast­ing ex­pres­sions and ges­tic­u­la­tions con­vey­ing their dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions to the fact that they are un­able to cure a pos­sessed boy with­out Christ’s as­sis­tance.

That study is highly fin­ished, but Raphael was equally ca­pa­ble of quick no­ta­tion, jot­ting down the es­sen­tials of a pose and try­ing out ideas and vari­a­tions in a few quick strokes of the pen that look al­most like doo­dles. In one of his sketches of a Madonna and Child, the lines ex­plor­ing the shift­ing po­si­tions of the Christ Child’s legs loop rest­lessly to and fro, while the more static fa­cial fea­tures are in­di­cated in heav­ier, con­fi­dent out­lines.

The draw­ings also re­veal the eclec­tic na­ture of Raphael’s in­spi­ra­tion and how he could draw upon a store of re­mem­bered images and blend them into some­thing new. His study for the fig­ure of Adam in the

Dis­putà, a fresco in the Stanza della Seg­natura, the Pope’s re­cep­tion room in the Vat­i­can, is a case in point. Its pose re­calls Clas­si­cal pro­to­types, such as the an­cient Ro­man statue of the Spinario, a boy pick­ing out a thorn in his foot, the Belvedere torso and the thrown-back head of the priest in the Hel­lenis­tic sculp­ture group Lao­coön and the mus­cu­lar body echoes Michelan­gelo’s nudes. Yet all these res­o­nances are per­fectly syn­the­sised in a fig­ure whose im­me­di­acy sug­gests it was drawn from a live model.

Ex­hi­bi­tions of draw­ings al­ways de­mand con­cen­trated look­ing on the part of the viewer, but this is not a dry aca­demic show. The prime aim has been to present the draw­ings as ex­per­i­men­tal, in­ven­tive and dra­matic works that can be en­joyed with­out any prior knowl­edge, rather than to painstak­ingly trace their ex­act re­la­tion­ship with the paint­ings. How­ever, if you feel like com­par­ing Raphael’s draughts­man­ship with that of his con­tem­po­raries, the Na­tional Gallery’s ‘Michelan­gelo & Se­bas­tiano’ ex­hi­bi­tion, fea­tur­ing sev­eral draw­ings by Raphael’s two arch ri­vals, is on un­til June 25. Shortly af­ter it closes, the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery’s ‘The En­counter: Draw­ings from Leonardo to Rem­brandt’ opens on July 31 with an im­pres­sive ar­ray of por­trait draw­ings.

‘Raphael: The Draw­ings’ is at the Ash­molean Mu­seum, Oxford, from June 1 to Septem­ber 3 (01865 278000; www.ash­

Next week: Art and jew­ellery in­spired by Bri­tain’s an­cient land­scapes and an­tiq­ui­ties

The Heads and Hands of Two Apos­tles (1519–20), a de­tailed study for his Trans­fig­u­ra­tion al­tar­piece

Left: Madonna with a book. Al­though not as fin­ished as his other stud­ies, it shows Raphael’s abil­ity to quickly sketch the es­sen­tials of a pose. Top: A study ti­tled

Three Stand­ing Men (1513–14), which he sent to Dürer to ‘dis­play his hand’. Above: Study for

Adam in the Dis­putˆ (1508–10)

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