Tom Sutcliffe: Renaissance artists had the hang of it

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The Independent Online

If you like drapery you're going to have a ball at the British Museum's new exhibition of Italian Renaissance Drawings. Since it devotes itself to the development of drawing as an artist's tool, between 1400 and 1510, there is, predictably, a lot of drapery here, with numerous preparatory studies of folds and pleats, and swags and swathes of fabric. And some of them stop you in your tracks. There's a small study of drapery for a painting of the risen Christ, by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, done in silverpoint and white lead, that is so finely worked that it is like a hallucination. There are the ruched arms of Gentile Bellini's drawing of a lady in Eastern dress – a detail which takes the standard vocabulary of quattrocento fabric and sends it wildly over the top. And there's the thin draped sheet on a Mantegna study of a man lying on a stone slab, which has more human pathos in it than the figure that gives it shape.

It begins to look like an obsession, which is hardly surprising – since the mastery of drapery was a standard element of every artistic apprenticeship. Learning how to control the interplay of highlight and shadow, of sharply defined curves and folds and soft bulges was – if not exactly lesson one – certainly a starting point for any artist who wanted to acquire a basic vocabulary of light and shade and volume. If you wanted to warm your hand and eye up to capture three dimensions, this was where you started. What's interesting in the British Museum's exhibition though, is the sense that what was a starting point in an artistic career could never be entirely shaken off. You keep getting the feeling that great artists – who might conceivably have moved beyond the journeyman work of getting the cloth to hang convincingly – find themselves as seduced by those folds as we do as spectators.

Not everyone takes drapery very seriously. Ruskin didn't, writing, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture that "drapery as such is always ignoble". He then immediately went on to contradict himself, explaining that "all noble draperies, either in painting or sculpture... are the exponents of motion or gravity." Drapery, Ruskin argued, was the only way a painting or statue could incorporate a sense of recent movement into still representation and the only way to convey the downward tug of the world on everything in it (for Ruskin, hair and falling water also counted as drapery, because it was the draping that mattered, not the thing that did the draping). On the other hand – this is the ignoble bit – it was just stuff, and he suggested that it might be a kind of heresy to devote more attention to the Madonna's clothes than to the Madonna herself.

He can't really make his mind up – but then it looks as if Renaissance painters couldn't either. On the one hand, drapery was an inherited set of gestures, with conventions so rigid that a well-informed art historian can read the cloth like an artistic genealogy. On the other hand it was a subject deliriously free of immediate significance. It didn't always stay that way. There are lots of instances of buried coding in drapery – of the unshowable hinted at in the suggestive buckle of a sheet. But quite often it's a place where artistry – the ability to conjure the physical world into being on a flat plane – is liberated from the necessity to mean something. Curiously, drapery can even free a picture from being pinned down by drapery. Leonardo advises his pupils at one point to avoid all depictions of modern dress in their paintings, since the outmoded fashions of the moment would pin their art to a particular time and place. If you don't want to look passé in two years time, he was reminding them, take very good care that you don't look fashionable this month. Renaissance drapery, free-flowing and liquid, was one obvious answer to that problem.

Paradoxically, though, drapery is also an anchor to the real. It's a place, within a painting of the numinous and transcendent, where the material of our world is unmistakably a part of their world too. It is the most tangible expression of representational realism – a bit of the painting that we can almost feel on our skin, and the vividness of its depiction must sometimes stand as an affidavit for the accuracy of more speculative inventions. Drapery shimmers between these poles – ignoble and noble, realism and paint for its own sake, the highest kind of art and the kind of fill-in tasks you start with on Day One. If you want to lose yourself in those folds of meaning there's no better place than the British Musuem right now. And if you don't like drapery, there's some pretty good bodies and faces too.

Never knowingly underscored

It's come to something when you get your watercooler moments in between the programmes rather than in them, but it's clear that John Lewis's latest ad – which distills a woman's life into a 90-second flow of images, to the sound of Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman" – has touched a public nerve. Columnists have written about it – weepily – and Twitterers have twittered, generally to the effect that this is the truest, most plangent, most moving bit of television we've seen this year. And, yes, it is a little masterpiece, panning seamlessly from one stage of life to the next, until – in the final scene – an old lady follows her grandchildren towards the horizon. But every time I see it I find myself wondering if there's any point in carrying on at all – given that the joys of life are so fleeting. I can't help wondering what the ad-strategy is, either. Is it supposed to leave us so depressed that only a spot of retail therapy will lift our gloom? And if that's the case wouldn't it be ugly rather than beautiful?

Sympathy for read and drive

It is, of course, deplorable that a Midlands bus driver should have been captured on a phone-cam flicking through a paperback book while driving along a dual carriageway near Selly Oak. However, as a reader who has frequently walked down busy pavements with my nose in a book, I can't entirely suppress a pulse of fellow-feeling. I envy him his steering wheel, too.

As Booker reading starts to bite I've found myself wondering recently if there might be some way to rig a novel to the handlebars of my bike, so as not to waste travelling time. I suspect that my sympathies would be dramatically affected by discovering what the title actually was, though. The footage (you can see it on YouTube) is rather grainy so it's impossible to tell, but if it was Tacitus or Henry James I'd be inclined to applaud his (hopefully unswerving) commitment to literacy. If it was Dan Brown, on the other hand, National Express should throw the book at him – preferably in a hardback edition.