New MFA exhibit shows sketches are masterpieces too

Today, we give drawing a level of importance in the visual arts that it never had in the past. Particularly in the Renaissance, when sketches were just plans for immaculately finished pieces, artists like Michelangelo would not want their drawings shown; the only thing that mattered was the final outcome. Today, we treasure these unfinished, dashed off studies for their immediacy and their insight into the artists’ working process. “Drawing: A Broader Definition” at the MFA looks past drawing as just a plan for other works. The show presents sketches, ceramics and miniatures from 3850 B.C. to the 1950s, by artists ranging from Hokusai to Picasso, in a way that shows drawing as a medium of its own.

Drawing is not limited to what immediately comes to mind, perhaps charcoal or ink or paper. Quintessentially, it is defined by mark making: the scratches in ceramic, the lines of a glaze and the thin strokes of an etching, down to the thin washes of a Chinese painting. In “Drawing: A Broader Definition,” the emphasis is not on the artist but on the process and the different methods of approach that drawing encompasses.

Through a series of fantastic curatorial choices, audiences at the show are led through the history of drawing not chronologically, but thematically. Pieces are grouped on the walls according to visual similarity, consistent media or similar background. This makes the somewhat academically austere show full of life and visual rhythm. It’s a fantastic opportunity not only to see the highlights of the MFA’s collection, but also to be led through a live art history book. This show teaches in the most gentle way possible, allowing viewers to make the comparisons themselves and note how drawing has changed and yet stayed the same from ancient Egypt to the Bauhaus.

One particularly eye-catching comparison is a pair of pieces put together by subject, in this case a tiger. The first, from Egypt circa 1500 B.C., bristles with power and muscle, visible tendons straining. Compare this to a drawing done almost 3,500 years later, an Indian miniature that is so refined that it becomes weak and effeminate. One sees that even over this vast gap, something about the integral process of drawing has stayed the same. The two pictures defy the notion that naturalism, so prized, comes from a heritage of the Greeks and the West. The exhibition leads audiences through these comparisons without forcing undue information on them. It is above all intuitive and approachable as an academic exploration of art history.

The visual rhythm that is created by the similarities of subject matter in the show is an integral part of its charm. Here a group of nudes scratched onto the back of a Hellenistic mirror, here a grotesque German figure drawing. The show bounces from the angular patterns of an Iranian vase to the geometric lines of a bark cloth from the Congo. This creates a kind of visual hide and seek; it sends viewers pursuing similarities that they may not otherwise have thought possible considering the vast timeline of the exhibition. Curator Clifford Ackley deserves an enormous amount of praise for creating a show that fosters a spirit of active participation and dialogue with its audience rather than just purporting to do so with extensive wall text.

In “Drawing: A Broader Definition,” drawing becomes a relentlessly expressive mode of working: It can adapt itself to any means, decoration, documentation, portraiture or narrative. The artists here are part of a vast, age-old tradition that has persisted from the beginning of art. What the show collects is just a small sample, but it’s an informative and unparalleled chance to see the breadth of possibilities drawing has to offer. “Drawing: A Broader Perspective” runs in the Trustman galleries at the Boston MFA through May 4.