Anonymous Drawings from 15th & 16th Century Renaissance Italy

Saturday 24 April – Sunday 22 August, 2010

“This superbly imaginative and timely exhibition asks what it is about these drawings that is ‘nameless’, why the absence of a name has caused them to be overlooked and what bearing their anonymity has on our ability to enjoy them. In addressing these questions it challenges more than just the anonymity of this particular selection of Renaissance drawings” – Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, Head of the Courtauld Gallery

This exhibition, supported by The Foyle Foundation,  recognises the special qualities of Italian Renaissance drawings as approaches to the visible world – as inventions, as testaments and as aesthetic objects. These qualities are clearly evident in the collections of  The British Museum, The Courtauld Gallery and The National Galleries of Scotland. These outstanding collections are rich enough to demonstrate the ever more important role given to drawing in Italian artistic practice from the late Middle Ages onwards. ­

During the late fourteenth century artists increasingly began to use paper to explore their ideas for the design of paintings and sculptures, rather than simply to copy or record finished works of art. This exploratory type of drawing offers a vivid and intimate glimpse of the artist creatively thinking on paper.

In preparing a composition, artists first drew quick sketches, usually in pen and ink, in which they formulated general ideas rather than focused on detail. Drawings, in the main, served a function as sketches for larger paintings or sculptures that may then be scaled up using a grid technique. Drawings were also used as teaching tools to apprentices and students. By the later 15th century, they were sometimes made as works of art in their own right.

The impetus for this exhibition has been driven by the sense that particular insights may be gained from engagement with Renaissance drawings that have evaded definitive attribution. In Nameless, the selected drawings are all anonymous or insecurely attributed, despite belonging to what many see as a ‘celebrity’ period in the history of art.

The pursuit of attribution has dominated art historical writing on drawing for a variety of reasons – educational, institutional and commercial  – sometimes to the exclusion of other concerns. This exhibition proposes that what may be perceived as a problem for art historical scholarship – the drawing without a name – can become a source of pleasure and perhaps a kind of liberation to the judgement and enjoyment of another audience.

The premise of Nameless is that these anonymous drawings can share the great beauty that we associate with the works ascribed to the great names of the Renaissance or those by the legions of unknown medieval craftsmen. The drawings still reveal a distinct touch and sense of immediacy through the trace left by the hand some 500 years ago, a hand not guided only by concern for personal recognition. In this respect, Nameless may also be read as a small stab at contemporary celebrity culture. Indeed the display of a small group of works arranged to encourage close, individual contemplation will suggest that anonymous works can communicate in a way that is less mediated for the viewer by the overshadowing perception of a named artist.

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