22 FEBRUARY 1930, Page 13


[ITALIAN PRINTS AND DRAWINGS AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM.] [We gladly welcome this appreciation by a Hungarian artist of the complementary Italian Exhibition at the British Museum.—ED. Spectator.] WHILE the Italian Exhibition at Burlington House goes on attracting a never-ebbing multitude of visitors; even the " news value " created by a bomb has failed to attract many persons' to the small but very select exhibition of old Italian prints and drawings in the Prhit Room of the British Muieum. The one completes the other, this little exhibition showing rare treasures of old Italian art which the Museum by Act of Parliament is prohibited from lending out • • in fact a mar- vellous addition to that grand and justly adinired

The reasons- for the disproportion of the public interest are fairly clear. First of all, the exhibits of the British Museum are not loans from far-off • and in a great part inaccessible places ; they are permanently. at the Museum (safely stowed away. on the shelves of the Reading Room adjoining the Print Room), and anyone who will take the trouble to apply for per- mission can see them there any time. He never will ; but he could. The second is that except to students. who have some sort of business there, the British Museum unjustly but in fact to a certain degree represents science and not enjoy- ment ; somehow, a musty atmosphere of death and decay, of mummified, old remnants and debris, of learning without pleasure, seems to emanate from these halls, corridors and staircases. And with all our admiration for the Museum we must admit that the general notion is not altogether un- founded ; • we don't quite like-to be reminded of things that we ought to know but don't really—so many odd bits of learning of which the only remaining recollection seems that of dreary, unpleasant honks in that bygone time when we were at school; of the vast labyrinth of drab rooms choke-full of objects of a confusing. variety, with a police corps of often unengaging-looking attendants—these men whose profession is to be literally bored to death (or to retirement)—all this, combined, is more .apt to repel than to. attract. But when, after some meandering, we find ourselves in the Print Room, what a wonderful atmosphere of Italian beauty, what a radiance emanating from the walls where those rare old mas- terpieces are placed ! . . • It is reported of Peter the Great that he offered free brandy to his Russian subjects in the picture exhibitions in order to induce them to visit the cultural institutions which, together With many other things of western fashion, his autocratic will had introduced in his country but did not always succeed in making popular. Now, the British Museum is offering to the public the heavenly nectar of drawings by Michelangelo and prints by the early Italian engravers on metal, from the school of Maso Finiguerra, the Florentine gold and silversmith who, according to tradition, invented the art of engraving, up to Mantegna, &c. The present writer feels that Iffichelangelo on one hand and the very early metal engravers up to Pollaiuolo on the other, are the pre-eminent wonders of this exhibition, although there are other unforgettable jewels, such as the delightful Allegory of Abundance, by Botticelli, the quint- essence of the master's exquisite personality—nothing less, indeed, than an ostentatious show of abundance, merely an abundance of quaint, nervous, feminine grace, instinct with a discreet charm of line which is expressive as well as decora- tive and gives an indeed so perfect ensemble of style that even the incredible, impOssible length of the arm of the flimsily draped youthful woman leading a nude boy by the hands seems to us something impossible to be imagined otherwise. The quattrocento drawings lead up to Leonardo da Vinci, who is well but not extraordinarily represented ; the collection of Leonardo drawings in the Royal Academy, from Windsor Castle and elsewhere, is incomparably more important. These here are mostly mere sketches—admirable ones, it is true, brief glimpses into the intimate and intricate workings of this curious and superior mind. Among the numerous drawings by Raphael there are one or two really beautiful, made on pink prepared paper with a silver pencil.

Michelangelo is the supreme genius of this exhibition. What marvels his nude study of a Madonna with child, or his Christ rising from the tomb ! These are in black chalk, with those wonderful gradations of light and shade which are so characteristic of his drawings of this kind. An interesting, rather sketchy drawing of a draped woman in half length, with her typically Michelangeloesque face and the breasts and forms of the body strongly indicated across the drapery sug- gests that peculiar abundance of defined ' form, as in the reclining female nudes on the tombs of the Medici in Florence ; a man's nude viewed from the back' in a forced movement of turning and lifting the arms—is it really a man's ? The sex is not so very important in Michelangelo's figures—done in red chalk and heightened with white, seems almost over- wrought ; the soft modelling of the drawings like Christ and the Madonna, with that infinitely delicate and almost imper- ceptible transition of forms, seems • to us to represent' the height of Michelangelo's art in drawing. And while in Raphael there is just " mere " beauty, in Michelangelo there is the spirit floating as a medium around the exquisite construction of human form.

The quaint charm of the early metal engravings need a separate mention. The beautiful silvery quality and the weird, naive conceptions of the prints of Finiguerra's school, the ruthless mutual murder of the nude fighting men by Pollaiuolo which, although decidedly unpleasant if: viewed only as a subject, are indeed so wonderfully composed as a pure ornament and possess such a delightful quality of the engraved line that we may well enjoy them with' perfect peace of mind as a pure objet d'art.

On the whole, we think that the addition of this exhibition to the other, the big exhibition of Italian painting, is an essential one, many artists and even periods such as, in par- ticular, the early Renaissance, could not have their complete say without it. Moreover, Italian painting has admittedly a very strong bias towards abstraction, the abstraction of draughtsmanship sometimes even to the detriment of colour. And drawing is by its nature the pure manifestation of this abstraction in art, the abstraction of line and form.