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A once-in-a-lifetime glimpse inside Raphael’s creative process

Co-curator Dr. Ben Thomas tells Florence Waters about a stunning new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which shines new light on the Renaissance Master’s drawings

Raphael: The Drawings  brings together 120 of the artist’s exquisite drawings — a third of his extant works on paper — to Oxford from collections around the world. It’s a highly intimate exhibition, revealing the interests and pleasures of the artist, and locating drawing as the place in which the artist’s creativity was at its most spontaneous.

The curators of the show want to familiarise audiences with the Renaissance master’s language of drawing, to show how he used it for ‘brainstorming’. They introduce the artist’s wide vocabulary of styles and techniques, showing how the stabbing of a pencil, the scratch of metalpoint or the gentle shaping of chalk helped him to achieve subtle emotive tension in his subjects. The exhibition pulls the viewer into a very direct relationship with the act of creation.

Here, co-curator Dr. Ben Thomas explains how he and Dr. Catherine Whistler have bypassed conventional thinking about Renaissance drawing in an attempt to shine fresh light on the artist.

A Man Carrying an Older Man on His Back, c. 1513-14. Red chalk. 30 x 17.3 cm. © Albertina Museum, Vienna

A Man Carrying an Older Man on His Back, c. 1513-14. Red chalk. 30 x 17.3 cm. © Albertina Museum, Vienna

Putto Holding the Medici Ring, c. 1513-14. Black chalk with white heightening, later framing lines in black chalk. 33.8 x 19.3 cm. © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Putto Holding the Medici Ring, c. 1513-14. Black chalk with white heightening, later framing lines in black chalk. 33.8 x 19.3 cm. © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Raphael: The Drawings  is an unusually presented exhibition, with little in the way of biography. Why is that?

Dr. Ben Thomas: ‘We wanted the focus to be insistently on the drawings, to see them less as documents of commission, but rather as a direct way of getting inside Raphael’s creative process. We set out to unlearn certain art-historical assumptions. Instead of looking at the drawings as if they were explained by the end product — the painting — we saw them as moments in time in which the artist is trying to discover the potential for a creative act.’

You get a sense that he was constantly developing a language in his drawing, whether using a blunt pen outline, gently moulding, tracing, or sketching…

BT: ‘The working title for the research project was “Raphael and the Eloquence of Drawing”. His drawing is eloquent in two senses: in a rhetorical sense definitely, but also as an index of a physical action on the part of the artist — the speed, the pressure of his hand, sometimes tentative, sometimes incredibly assured.’

Study for Adam in the Disputa, c. 1508-10. Chalk andor charcoal with white heightening. 35.7 x 21.2 cm. © Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence

Study for Adam in the Disputa, c. 1508-10. Chalk and/or charcoal with white heightening. 35.7 x 21.2 cm. © Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence

Studies for the Figure of Christ, c. 1507. Pen and brown ink over leadpoint. 28.5 x 16.2 cm. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Studies for the Figure of Christ, c. 1507. Pen and brown ink over leadpoint. 28.5 x 16.2 cm. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Was this intuitive or studied do you think?

BT: ‘It’s been fascinating to work out that dynamic between the artist constructing things from learnt conventions, and also from moments of inspiration, when just the rhythm of the hand on the page has led to something slightly different.’

Did you do any drawing for this research?

BT: ‘Yes, we all did, and learnt a lot. Our notebooks are full of woefully inadequate copies!’

Raphael was indebted to his older contemporaries Michelangelo and Leonardo. Was there rivalry?

BT: ‘Raphael is restlessly trying to find the most expressive forms he can. That means he’s open to taking things from other artists. In his drawings he’ll unpack them, stress-test them, absorb them. Tension is something that he liked about Leonardo’s art; the sense of coiled emotion, an eruptive moment about to happen.’

Study Inspired by Michelangelo’s David, c. 1504-5. Pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk. 39.6 x 21.9 cm. © Trustees of the British Museum

Study Inspired by Michelangelo’s David, c. 1504-5. Pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk. 39.6 x 21.9 cm. © Trustees of the British Museum

Raphael has always seemed a bit aloof to me, and yet the work on show is surprisingly emotional.

BT: ‘There is a tendency to think of Raphael as perfect; the epitome of grace. When Joshua Reynolds went to see the Raphael frescoes in Rome he famously said that he had to pretend to like them — until he actually started to like them. I think the emotional range of Raphael’s art is more evident in the drawings.’

And there’s humour, too.

BT: ‘He is humorous. That’s another of his devices. He will sometimes rethink an idea in a different genre — take a tragic image such as the carrying of Christ, for example, and try it out comically.’

The Virgin with the Pomegranate, c. 1504. Black chalk with compass indentation for the halo. 41.2 x 29.4 cm. © Albertina Museum, Vienna

The Virgin with the Pomegranate, c. 1504. Black chalk with compass indentation for the halo. 41.2 x 29.4 cm. © Albertina Museum, Vienna

And, of course, he’s a great storyteller.

BT: ‘The Madonna and Child is one of the basic motifs for Italian artists. He wrings out the drama of it in so many variations, as if he’s challenged himself: how can one get as much pathos out of that very constrained set of possibilities?’

Some of the accompanying material to the show describes Raphael as having an imagination ‘fired by contrasts’. What do you take that to mean?

BT: ‘We see it on sheet after sheet. If there’s a nude study he thinks about drapery, if there’s a recumbent figure he thinks about an active figure... He’s constantly seeing how he can orchestrate his composition to find counterpoints.’

Head of a Muse, c. 1510-11. Black chalk over pouncing and some blind stylus. 30.5 x 22.2 cm. © Private collection

Head of a Muse, c. 1510-11. Black chalk over pouncing and some blind stylus. 30.5 x 22.2 cm. © Private collection

In the beautiful Head of a Muse (which Christie’s sold for more than £29 million in 2009), the soft finish of the face is in surprising contrast to the wild, sketchy movement of the pencil around the shoulders.

BT: ‘One of Raphael’s great friends was Baldassare Castiglione, the author of The Book of the Courtier. He had a phrase that he applied to the art of being a courtier — sprezzatura — meaning that you do something difficult in a way that appears easy, as if you’re slightly disdainful of it looking difficult. Raphael was among other things a great courtier.’

Raphael: The Drawings is at the Ashmolean Museum until 3 September 2017