Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Under Cover": an exhibition of sketchbooks at the Fogg Art Museum

"I should recommend . . . keeping . . . a small memorandum-book in the breast-pocket, with its well-cut sheathed pencil, ready for notes on passing opportunities: but never being without this."
John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, 1857
On my last day in New England I visited "Under Cover", the exhibition of artists' sketchbooks at the Fogg Art Museum in Boston next to Harvard Yard. This is an exhibition of some 70 sketchbooks and 45 drawings that were originally part of sketchbooks - this is a list of exhibits. A Website which opens up an number sketchbooks for viewing accompanies the exhibition and a number of related sketching events are listed here. The exhibition will close on Sunday 22nd October although the sketching events carry on longer.

The drawings and notes in these sketchbooks vary from nature and figure studies, to travel sketches, copies after old masters, expense accounts, and lists of pictures. Some sketchbooks are self-conscious and conceived as a whole, with every page signed, while others are more spontaneous and filled with a random assortment of hastily drawn sketches and doodles. [Press Release]
It has two parts
  • Observation: this focuses on the documentation of the external world and includes many such travel and nature studies and sketches recording an artist's travels.
  • Invention: this follows the artists' digressions and internal journeys as they develop compositional ideas
It seemed to me that, on the whole, more traditional artists and those from times past tended to use sketchbooks for observational work while more 'modern' artists used them for more abstract visual thoughts. I wondered whether using a sketchbook for observational records had gone 'out of fashion'.

For me, the finest sketch I saw was one done by Turner - a very fine and delicate sketch of the Rhine landscape done in watercolour and graphite. (Turner was an indefatigable traveller who filled very many sketchbooks - most of which can be seen online here via Tate Britain). It was noticeable that most of the travels sketches done by different artists were about postcard size - while some used larger landscape format sketchbooks.

There are some very fine sketches by George Grosz of mice - and this was one of the sketchbooks which was reproduced as a facsimile for the exhibition and in 'verso' and recto' form on the website here. The website provides an interesting insight into the place of this particular sketchbook (one of 200 which have survived) in Grosz's artistic career. The website also covers and comments on sketchbooks used by a number of other artists.

Given my frequent use of coloured pencils for sketching and recent trip which incuded deserts in the southwestern USA, I was also interested to see that Mel Pekarsky has been recording desert landscapes using coloured crayons - you can see more examples on his website and I think he spent rather more time on his drawings than I was able to! Henry Moore also used coloured crayons for his ideas for sculture - see the image used for the introduction to the exhibition.

Because many of the sketchbooks are fragile, not to mention valuable, most of the exhibits are behind glass. However as you enter the museum, there are some facsimile sketchbooks which you can flick through much as you could if one of your friends handed you their sketchbook for you to review. I have to tell you this is quite an unnerving experience given who some of the sketchbooks belonged to!

It's rare to be able to see an intact artists sketchbook outside the possession of the artist who created it. It felt like a privilege to be able to see the everyday records, initial thoughts (both visual and jottings) and 'inner workings' of a variety of artists - they're somehow much more intimate than the great set piece painting or sculpture. As the exhibition suggest, it's almost as if we've been able to read a diary or look over their shoulder while they're at their work.

Do you preserve your sketchbooks for posterity - or your children?

Do you record what you see or use them to work out what you want to produce?

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Jeanette Jobson said...

Intersting links and information Katherine, thanks.

Why do I sketch? Hmmmm, a little of both reasons perhaps. I work out ideas and sketch purely for pleasure. It also appeals to me that someone, at some point after my death, will look into these sketchbooks and see a glimpse of my life and the 21st century and hopefully find it interesting.

Marion BE said...

My sketchbooks vary ... some are observations, some are for trying and developing ideas, some are full of words!

I'm not sure I could sketch dead mice in a trap though... or, rather, keep them rattling around in the humane mousetrap I have while I sketched them.

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