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Drawing the Line, again

An old exhibition that would be relevant today

Drawing the Line, again
Aqa Riza: Seated Youth with Book under a Tree in Conversation with a Dervish 1590.

I have always wondered why one can’t review a show that took place decades ago.

There may be shows that happened decades ago on which have the critics are still commenting, although you thought those works would find no place in any narrative of art history.

Picasso actually said that several works from modern times might fade out but the creations of Egyptians, Etruscans, and Greeks would still live.

One such exhibition, titled Drawing the Line, curated by Michael Craig-Martin, was held in the summer of 1995 — from July to September, to be precise — at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, after its earlier displays at Southampton City Art Gallery, Manchester City Art Galleries, and Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

I was in London at the time. I had no intention of spending eight pounds just to see an exhibition of “drawings,” but I was persuaded by my friends to buy the ticket.

It turned out to be an extraordinary experience. I realised that it was not a display of drawings, or a show of western works; it was the best essay on art I had ever come across. It brought down all barriers — of class, merit, mainstream and periphery, past and contemporary.

Seeing Barnett Newman’s ‘Untitled’ (1960), next to Leonardo da Vinci’s Abdomen and Left Leg of a Nude Standing in Profile (c. 1504), shocked me, and shattered all my perceptions and prejudices. How could a painter of the school of Abstract Expression be paired with a Renaissance artist revered for his supremacy in human anatomy?

I moved on, and found other combinations: Albrecht Durer’s ‘Head of a Man in Profile’ (1505) hanging next to Henri Matisse’s ‘Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace’ (1943), and many more.

The most enlightening aspect of the drawing show was that it connected the viewer with the essence of the artist’s practice — in fact, the basis of art-making. I was fascinated to learn how all artists intrinsically belong to the same clan — searching for the same truths and employing similar methods — and speak the same language, with just a difference in accent. So when you pass by a Persian miniature, in line by Aga Riza (Seated Youth with Book under a Tree in Conversation with a Dervish; c. 1590) and see another line drawing by Lucas Cranach (Madonna and Child) with it, you discover a similar passion for manipulation of line; rather the poetry of it, through the folds of oriental figures and draperies of Christian characters.

In much the same way, if you compare Josef Albers’ Structural Constellation (c. 1950) and Tobias Verhaeght’s A Mountainous Landscape with a River Flowing Through, you notice the presence of space through angular marks, both in the work of a modern master and an artist from the sixteenth century.

Besides unity across epochs, the show highlighted the impact of geography. Keeping the cultural identity intact, the curator emphasised on the formal concerns of artists from diverse backgrounds. Although he regretted that in the collection “there are no medieval manuscripts’ drawings, no Mondrian Pier and Ocean drawing, no Pollock drip drawing, no Artaud, no Calder,” he had managed to get works from places as diverse as Japan, China, India, Persia, Egypt, Alaska, ancient Greece, and Neolithic period, and styles as varied as Renaissance, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Like a magician, Craig-Martin had brought together works which were created without an awareness of each other, but when put side by side looked like closely related. In his introductory text, he explained: “I was asked to select the works for this exhibition as an artist. My whole understanding has come from my experience as an artist. There is a difference between the way artists look and consider works of art from the way historians, critics, collectors, curators, and dealers usually do.”

Therefore, one enjoyed the way the works were picked and placed, and thankfully forgot historical references or cultural connections. These drawings were presented purely as exercises in pictorial vocabulary; no different from the attitude of artists when they work in their studio or outdoors. In that instance, they are not thinking about their cultural identity nor are they bothered about the period they are working in; they just happen to be in their time and place — focused on their work. The phenomenon takes its course beyond the control or consciousness of the creative person.

All humans, despite differences of race, religion, or region, have this common urge to create something that may just simply be delightful. When they look at reality, they are eager to grasp its essence. The fundamental features of reality may vary from time to time and from one place to another, yet every attempt reveals a uniform goal.

That uniform goal was well-illustrated in the exhibition, leading to a sort of pictorial bond. You enjoyed the presence of grid in the works of Eva Hesse (Untitled; 1967) and in Egyptian Anonymous Book of the Dead of Nebseny (c. 1400 BC), recognising that the grid does not belong to any one tradition or period, nor to any other form, which we mistakenly associate with a specific school and century, such as the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism found in William de Kooning’s drawing Trembling Woman (c. 1963-64) but also in Turner’s Arrival of Louis-Philippe (1844); or Fan Jingwen’s The Treasure Sword (Chinese calligraphy from sixteenth century) that looked too relevant next to Jasper Johns’ Untitled (abstract line drawing from 1978).

For that matter, seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing A Puzzle – Construction of Hollow Boxes (c. 1490s) with Carl Andre’s work on paper Drawing for the Perfect Painting (1967), one was surprised to locate identical features in the works of the two artists that were centuries and regions apart — both had tried to capture the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface.

Revisiting the exhibition in 2019, I could not be oblivious to the changes that have come about since the mid-nineties. Six years after this show, the world was jolted by 9/11, and was transformed forever; split and segregated on the basis of the so-called Clash of Civilizations, wherein the western nations enjoy freedom, power and superiority, and people from the Muslim and Third World countries are barred from travelling to the First World, and reduced to the backyard of the mainstream.

Drawing the Line, in a sense, was/is a prophetic declaration that despite differences of political leaning, regional belonging and time (in every sense of the word), human beings are the same. This was evident in their drawings — and in their hands, eyes and minds that created those remarkable works.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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