‘I prefer drawing to talking,’ said Le Corbusier. ‘Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.’ The Swiss artist and architect was articulating the idea that drawing is a medium of truth-telling transparency. It reveals an artist at his or her most natural: at first hand and in first draft.
It’s on paper that artists can be found trying out their most daring new ideas, too. Their lines vary markedly in size, structure, density and direction.
Drawing in the 20th century became more expressive and less bound by naturalism, moving away from the perspectival strictures that had been adhered to since the Renaissance. It began to explore exciting new territories, tapping into chance, the subconscious, abstraction and more.
On 28 June in London, the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper sale offers pieces from one of the leading private collections of 20th-century drawing. Here, we pick out seven highlights.
In October 1929, Miró married Pilar Juncosa on the island of Mallorca. Miró had been experiencing a crisis in the development of his art until, in the summer of 1930 and in a state of conjugal bliss, he made several wonderful drawings which seemed to bring him back to life, three of which feature in the 28 June sale. This one is a semi-abstract vision, with Miró in typically playful form, his sinuous line in Conté crayon perhaps suggesting the elegant curves of Pilar’s body. As if to emphasise the celestial role she now has in his life, Miró depicts Pilar’s head in the form of a crescent moon.
In flight from war-torn Europe, Léger set sail from Marseilles to New York in 1940. One of the products of his five-year exile in the US was the series known as Les Plongeurs (‘The Divers’), inspired by the sight of a group of dockers at Marseilles jumping off the quay as a break from work. ‘I was immediately impressed by the trajectory of their bronzed bodies in the sunlight and water,’ Léger wrote. Two of his gouaches from the Plongeurs series feature in the sale.
Kandinsky was one of the 20th century’s leading artist-theorists, and he made this drawing to illustrate his book Point and Line to Plane, a summary of his teachings at the Bauhaus school in Weimar, where he’d been a master since 1922. The pen-and-ink work represents his move away from the irregular shapes and lines of his early years towards geometric abstraction, which he now saw as a purer form of expression.
It’s not entirely clear to whom the ‘KN’ of this work’s title refers, although it is widely believed to be Klee’s friend and fellow Bauhaus teacher, Wassily Kandinsky. It’s a study for the painting KN the Blacksmith, from the same year, which today forms part of the Kandinsky Collection at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Klee famously said that ‘drawing is simply a line going for a walk’, a playful attitude reflected in the figure of the metalsmith he depicts at work here.
Thorns appear frequently in Graham Sutherland’s art: he found them an apt symbol for man’s brutality towards fellow man in the Second World War. Sutherland had served as an official war artist between 1940 and 1945, documenting the transformation — and desolation — of Britain’s urban and rural areas. Although it was created some years after the end of the Second World War, Thorn Trees is in a similar vein. With hints of Surrealism and Cubism, it depicts a barren landscape boasting two skeletal trees with thorns.
With its vortex of lines seeming to capture an object moving at speed, this drawing was made by Giacomo Balla at the start of his engagement with Futurism (a movement that glorified fast cars, dynamic machines and new technology). It recalls Étienne-Jules Marey’s innovations in chronophotography, a photographic technique that captured motion in several frames. This is actually a study for a painting — Plasticità di Luci + Velocità, which is in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart — but it could be argued that Balla’s subtle shades of charcoal offer a more evocative sense of movement than even the finished canvas.
Executed in April 1934, Baigneuses belongs to a series of works that Picasso produced during a stay in the south of France on holiday with his wife Olga and their son Paulo. Picasso’s works of this period do not take his family as their subject, however. In fact, it is thought that his muse and inspiration, at this time, was instead his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he had met in 1927. Captivated by her youthful, unpredictable spirit, as well as by her voluptuous body, Picasso’s renderings of Marie-Thérèse are erotically charged, often showing her sleeping or in a state of carefree abandon or, as in this work, while playing on the beach. Baigneuses is dominated by four female figures, all of which certainly represent Marie-Thérèse in a variety of moods and attitudes.