Review: Titian to Canaletto

Titian to Canaletto, the latest exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, stems from a challenge. It has often been argued, most famously by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1568) and Joshua Reynolds in his lectures at the Royal Academy of Arts (1770s), that Venetian artists had neither interest nor talent for drawing. They moved straight to painting without any preliminary study. With highlights from the Venetian artistic scene from 1500 to 1750, this exhibition aims to counter this presupposition. It shows that Venetian drawings not only existed, but were quite remarkable too.

Titian, Portrait of a young woman, © Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence
Titian, Portrait of a young woman, © Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence

Titian to Canaletto is the culmination of a series of Ashmolean exhibitions centred around drawings, the most recent being Great British Drawings which closed on 31st August 2015. I entered the museum with the works of Gainsborough, Turner, and Rossetti still in mind, but the new exhibition is neither repetitive nor predictable. It is, in many ways, a remarkable project. It is highly collaborative: the exhibition features drawings from the collections of the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, and the Uffizi, Florence. The collaboration allows wonderful reconnections of works by the same artist or period that have never been displayed next to one another. Additionally, several works are shown to the public for the first time, including hidden gems from the Uffizi. Moreover, the exhibition is not confined to traditional works but branches out into contemporary art, displaying original works by celebrated British artist Jenny Saville.

The exhibition starts where the 2010 exhibition Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum ended, with Titian’s ‘Study of a young woman’. This opening drawing encapsulates recurring themes in the exhibition: the masterful play of light and shade (chiaroscuro) and tonality, the focus on an interior world, and the ability to capture the sitter’s personality in a few sketches.  After these are Tintoretto’s drawings, which are mostly muscular, Michelangelo-like bodies captured in all sorts of poses, once again with chiaroscuro effects achieved with charcoal or chalk. The drawings are copies of both statues or Roman busts, and real models. The 17th century was represented by the remarkable works of Palma Giovane. A famous sketcher and art teacher revered in his time, he is hardly known today. Admittedly, the baroque period looks somewhat less remarkable than the initial room, but still offers a few genuinely impressive works, such as the pair of sketches by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Giambattista Tiepolo, displayed together (and in the case of Tiepolo, exhibited at all) for the first time. Another theme the exhibitions reflects on is drawing as a practice and a teaching tool, and presents the gradual transformation of Venetian family workshop of families such as Bellini, Bassano, Veronese, to the institution of the Accademia di Belle Arti, in 1750.

Canaletto, An Island in the Lagoon, © Ashmolean Museum
Canaletto, An Island in the Lagoon, © Ashmolean Museum

What particularly caught my attention in the first room was a meta-exhibition, a canopy-like space under which various collected and collectable items are displayed: albums, portfolios, prints, two-sided drawings, statuettes. Throughout the period considered, these artistic endeavours found homes in private collections, as objects of desire for many collectors across Italy and Europe. Contrary to their public assertions, both Giorgio Vasari and Joshua Reynolds themselves were fond collectors of such drawings. One of the purposes of collecting is to be able to showcase one’s treasures, and this space creatively exhibited this aspect of the drawings’ social context.

The Venetian drawings find modern echoes in the final section of the exhibition. Curator Catherine Whistler asked Jenny Saville to produce brand new work on paper in response to the Venetian artists, bringing a dialogue with the masters of the past to life. The same chiaroscuro, intimacy, and dynamism can be found here as in the Venetian drawings, the exhibition pulling together the ancient and contemporary with an organic fluidity.

Palma Giovane, ‘Studies for Bathsheba at her bath’ © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Palma Giovane, ‘Studies for Bathsheba at her bath’ © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

What I took away from Titian to Canaletto was that drawings are, by their very nature, extremely versatile. The exhibition deliberately presents drawings whose essence is difficult to define. For example, Lorenzo Lotto’s ‘Group of young women and men’ from the Uffizi has all the appearance of a preparatory study for a larger painting, and yet on the back we find evidence that suggests it was part of a collection; the piece thus becomes a beautiful non-finito (unfinished), remarkable in spite of, or maybe precisely thanks to, its liminal state between a study and an accomplished work. Drawing can also be a highly conceptual means as well as a technical one, as in the beautiful example by Palma Giovane ‘Studies for Bathsheba at her bath’. This gathers together on the same piece of paper the idea of a female nude, the sketch of a more specific context, and the careful copy from a real-life model; drawing is here used as a way to experiment and test ideas on paper. From items intended for the delight of a family, to sketches intended for collectors, to works that are merely in-between stages of greater projects, drawing presents a wonderful variety and fluidity that is unique to paper sketches. And more than anything else, the exhibition successfully shows the phenomenal experimentation taking place in Venice between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Anna Zanetti

Titian to Canaletto runs at the Ashmolean Museum until 10th January 2016; for more information, please visit their website.

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