Ink on paper vs. paint on canvas

(Not about language, though there’s a connection to comics.)

In Friday’s NYT, a review by Holland Cotter in the Arts section of a collection of drawings, beginning:

If “Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings From Munich” were an exhibition of paintings, not drawings, the Morgan Library & Museum would have to be thinking about crowd control. A show of little-seen pictures by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens and Pontormo, with Picasso and Sigmar Polke tossed in? Issue timed tickets. Extend your hours.

But when it comes to box office pull, work on paper and work on canvas don’t carry equal weight. There are exceptions. “Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman” brought throngs to the Met in 2003. But that was Leonardo, the elusive Elvis of art, always just leaving the building, a special case.

Most drawing shows, especially group shows, tend to be buzz-free, even when the artists are supernovas, as several in the Morgan show are, and when the material comes from a storied collection, as the work in the show does. Everything is from the venerable Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, which gave two lucky Morgan curators — Linda Wolk-Simon and Jennifer Tonkovich — the pick of its holdings in return for the Morgan’s loan of drawings to Munich in 2008.

Yet, with all of that, drawing’s status as an honorable-mention medium holds. Estimable, but not ecstasy-inducing. Alluring, but in a small-scale, fine-grained way that doesn’t quite spell sexy. At the high, wide banquet table of art, drawing is salad, painting is steak.

Physical heft is a factor. Oil paint, with its gleam and depth, gives an illusion of healthy permanence. Ink and paper are as perishable as they look.

The piece goes on with tales of abuse suffered by drawings, including some in this exhibition.

There’s a slide show with a few highlights, like this “Study for the Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma,” a Rubens from 1603:

Cotter’s claim is that drawings are undervalued because they are physically less substantial than paintings — just as ordinary comic books and cartoons are undervalued with respect to the newer medium of graphic novels / fiction / narratives: see some discussion here, both about the labels for such works and about their distinguishing characteristics, which include publication in the durable formats of printed books, being sold in bookstores, and acceptance as suitable materials for library collections.

(Hat tip to Ellen Sulkis James, who pointed me to this piece when I might easily have missed it.)

(Final note, on round numbers: according to WordPress, this is my 2,500th posting on this blog.)


One Response to “Ink on paper vs. paint on canvas”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    I don’t know if it’s entirely a matter of being substantial. There’s also a visual acuity issue here, at least for me. All but the smallest of paintings are meant to be seen from a distance, so the security measures taken by museums don’t generally affect my ability to see them. This might not be true if I were educated enough to want to pick out brushstrokes and such, I realize. But drawings are generally behind glass, often in a glass case, and you can’t get very close to them. They’re also generally shown in dim rooms to preserve them. Those two factors, and my failing eyesight, make it hard for me to see the drawings at all well, so I can’t see them to the same level of detail as I can see a painting.

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