EXHIBITIONS / A masterly way with millions: The Getty Museum has built an impressive collection of drawings. But it's time it stepped into the modern age

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE J PAUL Getty Museum in Malibu, California, has been collecting drawings only since 1981, but with vast funds and a considerable amount of expertise. Its curator of paintings and drawings has been George R Goldner, and the sumptuous exhibition at the Royal Academy is a tribute to his acumen on behalf of the Getty. In January he will become Chairman of the Prints and Drawings Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met is a comparatively staid and needy institution. Not so the Getty, which was happy to spend a reported dollars 9.2m (now pounds 6.2m) at the Chatsworth sales at Christie's in 1984 and this summer bought a Michelangelo drawing, again at Christie's, for the record sum of dollars 6.32m.

'We have approached the market carefully but unapologetically,' Goldner says. The Royal Academy show demonstrates that sheer purchasing power has been allied to connoisseurship in a most effective way. To date the Getty Museum has bought about 400 drawings; 120 of them are at the RA, and they are all by wonderful or highly significant artists. True,

we know of better drawings by many of these masters. It's also true that one can weary of compositional sketches by, say, 17th-century church decorators. But here are Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens at their best, and a host of precious things by Leonardo, Carpaccio, Bernini, Mantegna and so on.

Goldner's policy has been to buy the Renaissance masters first, since fewer drawings by Renaissance artists remain in private collections. But one wonders about the future shape of the Getty's holdings. Obviously the acquisitions will be of later and non-Italian artists, including British draughtsmen. On the present showing, the Getty is aiming at our central artists. The Holbein drawing Portrait of a Scholar or Cleric is one of the pictures that left Chatsworth a decade ago (for dollars 1.95m) and the other British artists on display are also classic: Gainsborough, Blake and Turner.

Without being disrespectful to Gainsborough, Study of a Seated Woman is a queer little number. It may indeed not be a drawing of a woman at all, but of a dressed-up doll, a preparatory work for a painting of any future client. Gainsborough used black chalk rubbed with a stump, heightened the initial drawing with white chalk and allowed his nice blue paper to give this white a special luminous effect. Stand away from the drawing and it lights up. You can imagine that a painting will result with all of Gainsborough's shimmering finery. Close to, the drawing is skilled workshop practice.

The drawing remains a bit of a puzzle. We would know its status and purpose if there were a proper catalogue of the exhibition rather than an uninformative souvenir booklet that reproduces just 15 of the works on display. Obviously the Getty could have underwritten such a publication. The necessary scholarship is available. Perhaps the Getty Museum is shy of that essential component of a catalogue, an account of the provenance of the works it describes. Many patriots will visit the RA to lament that one of Turner's greatest small symphonies to our English coasts, the Long Ships Lighthouse, Land's End, is now housed on the shores of distant California. What was its previous home and history?

This is the consummate watercolour of 1834-35 described by the young Ruskin in the first volume of Modern Painters, where he draws a parallel with the visionary nature poetry of Wordsworth. It is impossible to look at this drawing without a sense of national loss. Another British vision is provided by Blake. His Satan Exulting Over Eve seems to have been a colour print, originally, over which the artist put pen and pencil lines, then watercolour. Here is a devastatingly precise view of the poet's knowledge of evil - or his imaginings of the devil's work.

Always look for evil in Old Master drawing exhibitions. It comes in drawing by superior minds, less so in their painting. Rembrandt has an unforgettable Nude Woman with a Snake. Its red-chalk technique substitutes for the wetness of painting (actually a red-chalk draughtsman will often use spittle as he works). Rembrandt could not have considered a painting of the subject, so private and lubricious are his thoughts. The woman feels her bosom as though expressing its milk, and one therefore senses that the snake might not be her seducer or intimate so much as her offspring.

Nothing else is quite so wildly adult as this fancying, but who else had Rembrandt's mind? His desire for the inexplicable could only be expressed through sensuality. Rembrandt's attitude to the Christian mysteries is more fleshly than that of any other artist of whom we have record. But, Rembrandt aside, note how many of these Old Master drawings are alive with horror at the old Biblical stories: Raphael shows St Paul Rending his Garments, Leonardo suggests that the Virgin has given birth to a lamb, Pontormo's dead Christ is tormented by Pontormo himself and Mantegna's judges are ready to pronounce execution on the viewer.

The section given to the Northern Renaissance is less interesting. Durer is not represented as a towering figure, the Altdorfer is not convincing at all and Hans Hoffmann's picture of flowers and beetles is for people who like beetles as much as they like flowers. But then there is Rubens to sweep away such crabbed work. His portrait of a Korean, of about 1617, is a foretaste of the general intelligence we hope to find in art of the European enlightenment.

The French drawings are lovely, Claude as calm as the summer sea, Fragonard stronger than one would have believed him capable, Callot just as good as the more official French artists, Watteau delectable and Ingres as usual on his best behaviour. I would have lingered on these walls - which on the whole have a more coherent taste than any other part of the exhibition - were it not that one wants to know the Getty attitude to modern art. Goldner says that you need a good eye to be able to purchase Old Master drawings and that money itself has no eye. A truism; but Old Master connoisseurship is a straightforward business when compared with the problems of judging quality in drawings of the 20th century.

So how does the Getty treat art of our times? The answer is that for the moment, this potentially great museum halts at modernism as though before a brink. The show ends with Adolf von Menzel, Van Gogh and Cezanne. I recommend more than one look at the Menzel. He made innumerable studies for paintings and this is one of them. But it's self-sufficient and more beautiful the longer it is considered. Menzel's drawing was intentionally modest but was more modern than his work on canvas. He was ambidextrous and preferred to draw with his left hand and paint with his right. What can this mean? Perhaps that the drawing side of his mind and physique was for meditation while the right hand was purposeful and executive.

Another thoughtful, inward-looking modern drawing is Van Gogh's Portrait of Joseph Roulin. In a neat paradox, the artist chose to show him with a cap proclaiming his public function. Roulin the postman was a true friend, the only Arles neighbour who visited Van Gogh in hospital after his breakdown and the ear episode. The drawing corrects Van Gogh's tendency to overload his painting, filling every square inch of the canvas with an equal and highly emphatic charge. Done with a reed pen (for the uniform and beard) and a quill pen (for the features and background), this sheet is gentler and sadder than any of Van Gogh's oils. Look at Roulin's eyes. They are a version of the artist's own, but sane.

Van Gogh the Northerner feared the mistral and thought that Cezanne's touch went awry when the bad wind blew. I don't believe him but it's interesting that other great artists, Matisse and Picasso among them, felt that Cezanne's touch had empathy with the metaphysical world. The Getty Museum's very late but imprecisely dated watercolour (1900-06) brings the exhibition to a triumphant yet still uncertain close. Its medium seems so naked and fragile, like human existence; but Cezanne's handling is particularly wise and sonorous. This is the most thoughtful work in the Getty collection. It also points to the future of modern art. The Getty Museum's next curator of drawings should take it as a touchstone for a further set of acquisitions from great artists of our own century.

Royal Academy (071-439 7438) to 23 Jan.

(Photograph omitted)