The Encounter: Drawings From Leonardo To Rembrandt

Art, Drawing and illustration National Portrait Gallery , Leicester Square Until Sunday October 22 2017
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The Encounter: Drawings From Leonardo To Rembrandt
A sheet of figure studies, with male heads and three sketches of a woman with a child by Rembrandt von Rijn c.1636. Copyright: The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

You shouldn’t be looking at this. None of us should. The drawings collected here – by the great and okay of the Renaissance and Baroque – were probably never meant to be seen. They’re sketches, rushed scribblings, preludes to greater works. They were never intended for public consumption.

But tough luck, Renaissance bozos, the National Portrait Gallery’s got a hold of your private drawings and whacked ’em up for everyone to see. The premise is that this show explores the single moment of profound intimacy between artist and sitter that portrait drawings capture. There are studies and life sketches by Pisanello and Rembrandt, drawings of friends and assistants by Filippino Lippi and gorgeous court portraits by Holbein the Younger.

The works are so faint, delicate and detailed that you have to scooch right up, get nose-to-nose with Pontormo’s nude youth, eye-to-eye with Rembrandt’s fat drunkard, armpit-to-armpit with Carracci’s timid young man, cheek-to-cheek with Perugino’s woman in a cap.

It’s hard not to love Albrecht Dürer’s nude woman, Da Vinci’s scarily buff bro, or Holbein’s grizzly, forlorn and impressively hairy man in a black cap, but most of these works are pretty far from brilliant (ahem, Leonhard Beck). Instead, what makes this show work is what it offers: a sly peek behind the artifice of perfection we expect from paintings, a chance to voyeuristically catch a glimpse of artists in private moments, at their most unguarded, letting it all hang out. The show makes you a peeping tom, waiting outside Dürer’s studio, in the bushes with some binos. It’s the artistic equivalent of those ‘celebs without make-up’ articles.

It’s not the greatest collection of drawings you’ll ever see, and it’s hard to get a sense of that ‘encounter’ between sitter and artist in the title of the show. But there’s a more important encounter taking place here: forget the sitter, it’s you who’s getting intimate with these artists. 

By: Eddy Frankel

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Venue name: National Portrait Gallery
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Address: St Martin's Place
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WC2H 0HE
Opening hours: Mon-Wed, Sat, Sun 10am-6pm; Thu, Fri 10am-9pm
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