Straight to the point
What kinds of drawings do sculptors make? Richard Shone on their work in the 20th century Apassionate argument about the respective merits of painting and sculpture reverberates through the documents of the Italian Renaissance. Sculpture was labori- ous and it tired the body; painting only tired the mind. Sculpture was three dimen- sional, could be touched as well as seen and was thus nearer to Nature as conceived by God; painting was only a poor illusion, a pictorial daydream. Leonardo clearly favoured painting for its broader range of effects though he had to admit that sculp- ture was more enduring. Michelangelo inevitably pushed the claims of carving: 'There is as much differ- ence between painting and sculp- ture as between shadow and truth.' A figure experienced in the round, subject to multiple views, was preferable to a flat statement on panel or plaster. So it continued but on one matter everyone was agreed: drawing was at the root of all aesthetic endeavour.
In the centuries that followed, sculpture maintained its public, fig- urative and often narrative impulse and frequently lost out against the superior claims of painting. With the advent of Rodin, the first great sculptor-draughtsman for over 200 years, the gap between painting and sculpture began to narrow and most of the leading figures of early modern sculpture were trained as painters — Picasso, Matisse, Mail- lol, Boccioni, Pevsner, Gonzalez among them. By 1910-15, through the intervention of cubist construc- tion, painting and sculpture had become modernist bedfellows, wal- lowing in a new-found cross-fertili- sation. This closeness makes it all the more worth looking at some of the dif- ferences between the drawings of painter and sculptor — a division increasingly hard to maintain.
The most obvious distinction is the marked utilitarian element in sculptors' drawings. They can have the same self-con- tained beauty as a painter's drawings, can even have been made with no specific pro- ject in mind, but they embody, as a first principle, a note of prefiguration, of the chrysalis, the unbroken egg. It is this that frequently gives them their unfussy direct- ness. They go straight to the point; details can wait; the depicted object, figure or con- struction is rarely given a setting or a back- ground; considerations of atmosphere and niceties of lighting are not their immediate business.
A painter, testing the water of a new form or subject or colour relationship, can Henry Moore's 'Shelter Drawing' 1940 note this momentary operation on paper, elaborate it, repeat it, cancel it out. A sculptor would obviously find this laborious or difficult in three dimensions. For this very reason the output of a sculptor who draws is often inexhaustible, particularly at the stage of first idea, and can emerge in a great variety of forms and media from stu- dio graffiti to the proverbial back of an envelope. We have the visually engrossing spectacle of images done over and over again. These are among the most intimate manifestations of the sculptor speaking to himself, sometimes a mumbled phrase, at others a whole articulate sentence.
But the sculptor creates by making some- thing. There comes the danger of taking ini- tial drawn ideas to too adamant a conclusion, the drawing becoming a substi- tute for a three-dimensional work. As a result, the sculpture may only be, as Henry Moore once wrote, 'a dead realisation of the drawing'.
Several sculptors are on record as deny- ing they make drawings towards their work and abhor the intervention of paper. A probable reason for this reluctance is that sculptural scale is hard to define on a flat surface, and to concentrate on one particu- lar aspect of a work conceived in the round is probably of little use to the artist. Real space is more important at the initial stage than pictorial space, illusion a poor substi- tute for the immediacy of solid materials.
But what kinds of drawings do sculptors make? Four main groups can be distinguished: first, inde- pendent drawings; second, initial ideas towards sculpture; third, drawings for specific projects; and, fourth, drawings made after sculp- ture which act as both a reprise and a way forward.
Most sculptors make indepen- dent drawings at one time or another, usually as time-off from their main concerns. Claes Olden- burg's erotic drawings are a perfect example of independent serious play, though created, of course, by the same visual intelligence as his three-dimensional works.
Finished drawings for specific sculptures are rarer than might be expected. With the increasingly wide definition of sculpture in the 20th century, diagrammatic draw- ings encompassing technical details and fabrication notes have assumed greater importance, often combining an enticing rapidity of drawn thought with mundane considerations (always vital to sculptors) of spacing and layout.
The first three of these four categories are straddled by Henry Moore's celebrated Underground shelter drawings. What start- ed as an independent activity ended as pro- foundly influential on his subsequent sculpture. The drawings were made at the start of the second world war when, in the prevailing conditions, Moore was not in fact making sculpture. They were not drawn in the Underground itself — Moore felt this would be too intrusive — but made at home later, sometimes using written notes. Then we come across a later memo: 'Do drawings worked out from some within [shelter] notebook, but carried out more especially for sculpture.' And so evolved the carved and cast figure groups of 1944 onwards in which the swelling waves of drapery, prevalent in the clothes and blan- kets of the shelter sleepers, became a newly expressive sculptural feature.
If Moore's drawings are often sensitively coloured, redolent of both an actual place and a symbolic atmosphere, most sculptors' drawings are made without colour. This is not to imply that sculptors don't consider this element: their antennae are extraordi- narily alive to refined modulations in the colours of stone, bronze, latex, plaster, powder, water and wood. Paradoxically, drawings by painter-sculptors — Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti — are often free of colour and we might conclude that the artists were relieved to get away from it. Neutral ink, charcoal or pencil characterise more recent sculptors' drawings, a certain puritan distaste for colour having remained unchallenged since the 1960s.
The fourth category of drawings, those made after a completed work, have a par- ticular fascination as corrections, after- thoughts and signposts. They often indicate the potential of sculpture more clearly than do preparatory drawings We know that Rodin made exasperated drawn additions to photographs of his 'Burghers of Calais'. Picasso included his own sculptures in drawings and paintings, placing them in new contexts, relit and resealed. In much the same way, Jasper Johns replays his sculptural motifs such as ale cans and brush containers in later drawings, keeping close to the colour of the sculptures but re-pre- senting them as still-life objects with mem- ories of other works intervening to produce a virtuoso, multi-layered performance. More recently, many of Rachel Whiteread's drawings were made after the event, their use of rapidly hardening cor- rection fluid along with inks and water- colour on graph paper producing a unique hybrid of tactile surface, diagrammatic vehicle and a ghostly reminiscence of image even when drawn as clear as day.
It is not difficult to see why drawings for sculpture, with a few exceptions, have been judged less attractive than those of a painter and are less shown, less collected, less written about. They have little appeal to drawing collectors' snobbery — no bravura skill, no seductive settings or sub- tleties of illumination, little calligraphic magic. They can appear tack-handed, rudi- mentary or impossibly dull. Sculptors are revealed as great draughtsmen in their sculpture rather than on paper: Brancusi is a perfect example. The value of sculptors' drawings lies in their idealism, their hover- ing suggestion of projects more often than not unrealised. This, combined at the other extreme with a practical sense of materials and a down-to-earth disclosure of form, gives them a risky sense of potential far removed from the oppressive limitations of illusion or the tyranny of descriptive fact.
The above text is a greatly abbreviated version of the catalogue essay to the exhibition of 20th-century sculptors' drawings on view in London at Karsten Schubert Ltd, 41-42 Foley Street, Wl, and at the Frith Street Gallery, 59- 60 Frith Street Wl, until 2 November.