Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery

Things to do, Event spaces
4 out of 5 stars
© The Courtauld Gallery 'Apples, Bottle and Chairback' (c 1904-6) by Paul Cezanne

This exhibition of drawings is really just an excuse for the Courtauld to showcase their world-class collection, and actually that's no bad thing. The lack of any overarching theme allows space to simply consider drawing as a practice over time. Viewers can trace the shifting landscape, from the Renaissance concept of life studies and experimental sketches as merely preliminary to final works in other media, through the emergence of drawings as independent works for sale in the eighteenth century, to early modernism's recognition of the value of experimentation as an end in itself. In other words, it's an old-fashioned, narrative display, a sort of 'story of drawing'. It's also a story told not just through the 59 works themselves, but through the extremely informative wall texts.

Favourites are obviously a matter of personal taste but for my money the absolute best of the bunch are a voyeuristic, seedy pastel study of a woman in a milliner's, by Degas; a stormy maritime scene by Bruegel, with the churning waves depicted like leaping tongues of flame; and an extraordinary nude by Seurat, the figure receding mysteriously into thick, scumbled blackness.

With usually just one work per artist, there's little sense of any individual development. Instead, what you take away is a sense of the vitality, the primacy of drawing as a whole; and of the way that personal style, the physical deployment of line, is something that seems able to transcend the historical period in which it was made. There's an ink and wash sketch by Tiepolo from 1757, for example, that could be msitaken for a late-twentieth-century illustration by Quentin Blake from a book by Roald Dahl.