Giacobbe Giusti, from Leonardo to Jasper Johns
by Laura Cumming
Drawing in Silver and Gold: From Leonardo to Jasper Johns review – sensationally beautiful
British Museum, London
An exclusive preview of a unique show devoted to the lost art of metalpoint reveals works as beautiful as they are technically exacting
Rembrandt is in love with the girl in the portrait – and she with him. Her eyes glow with adoration beneath the brim of a wide straw hat. Her hair is wavy, her lips moist, the cheek resting against one hand is warm and supple and Rembrandt draws the tiny dimple in her chin with infinite tenderness: no mean feat, considering that he is not using fluid ink or soft chalk but a hard silver stylus to commemorate this momentous June day in 1633. Rembrandt and Saskia are now officially engaged.
Rembrandt left only a handful of drawings in metalpoint and they were all made during this three-day betrothal trip to Friesland. He chose a special medium for a precious occasion. Metalpoint involves drawing on parchment or paper coated with a slightly abrasive surface of gum mixed with a substance like ash, ground bone or lead white. It is exceptionally tricky because the fine line created by the sharp metal tip is almost impossible to erase. One mistake and the drawing is spoiled.
If you are going to incise an eyelash or indent the spots on a dragon’s wing, you have to know where the marks will go
But get it right and the effects can be astounding, as this unique exhibition reveals. Drawing in Silver and Gold is the first show ever devoted to the art of metalpoint. It is radical, original and sensationally beautiful, with works by some of our greatest artists, from Dürer and Leonardo to Holbein and Rembrandt, and on to the present exponents of the medium, who include Bruce Nauman and Jasper Johns. The images are intimate, generally small, often surprisingly personal – Dürer’s dog, Holbein’s younger brother – and share the paradoxical quality of metalpoint, which is to appear extremely precise and yet shimmeringly soft.
As the artist draws, the stylus leaves a faint silvery trace on the surface. With time, air oxidises the metal, turning that line to many subtle shades of gold and brown. The first great portrait in this show, by Rogier van der Weyden around 1430, has exactly the hues of a sepia photograph. Indeed the young woman in her elaborate veil emerges from the page with nearly photographic immediacy. Her eyes are wide with concentration and the artist has left a tiny dot of untouched parchment in one, to indicate the glistening tear duct. It is an infinitesimally small but superb calculation.
Metalpoint requires intense premeditation. If you are going to incise an eyelash, sweep in a dynamic profile or indent the livid spots on a dragon’s wing, you have to know exactly where these marks will go in the overall composition because you can’t take them out or move them. And unlike charcoal, chalk or pencil, the artist cannot create darker marks by varying the pressure. Everything – from velvet to steel, from muscular flesh to dewy rose petal – has to be achieved by the exacting touch of the tip.
The high point of the medium is generally held to be Leonardo’s Bust of a Warrior, star of the British Museum’s own collection. This vision of a soldier with a face like thunder, angrier than the raging lion on his breastplate, fiercer than the spiny dragon wings on his helmet, is a marvel of crosshatching, contouring, stippling and shading in minute dashes and loops. Even after the centuries have turned it spectral grey, even though its curlicues may be weightless and fantastical, this masterpiece remains peculiarly frightening.
Metalpoint may be extremely difficult but it has certain advantages over other methods of drawing. It doesn’t smudge, there is no need to stop and sharpen the pencil or dip the pen in ink, and it is far less fugitive than charcoal or chalk. It is midway between drawing and etching in terms of durability. Although the origins are obscure – some specialists think metalpoint emerges from medieval illumination – its heyday is mainly in western Europe between the 15th and the 17th centuries, when it was sometimes used to create images for sample books.
A patron might flip though a catalogue of drawings to pick motifs – this head, those pillars, that background field – for an altarpiece. Some of the exhibits in this show are prototypes for existing paintings. But whatever their purpose, they always exceed it in their sheer virtuosity and fascination with the look of life – the intricate brickwork of an Antwerp street, the beauty of an arching eyebrow, the minute phenomenon of tears welling, then bursting the dam of an eyelid to stream down a mourner’s cheek.
Leonardo does it, but Michelangelo does not. There is some mystery in who chooses metalpoint, in why it appears and then disappears, especially in certain countries.
The Italians, working with flamboyantly coloured surfaces of coral, green and blue, produced magnificent anatomical drawings and studies of airborne saints during the Renaissance, but the method never quite left the workshop to enter their private lives as it did in northern Europe. Flemish artists drew their wives and siblings, their children and pets, the new tobacco plant in the back garden. Dürer’s first self-portrait – in three-quarter view, and pointing rather than drawing, just to make it even harder – was produced at the age of 13, with a silver stylus.
Presumably the mass production of graphite pencils has something to with the decline of metalpoint. But there was a revival in the 19th century when the pre-Raphaelites, among others, consulted some of the very drawings in this show, and in the very same place. By the 20th century, to use metalpoint was to align oneself with a most exacting tradition. One of the most touching images here is Otto Dix’s Self-Portrait As a Draughtsman from 1933, the year he was sacked from his position at Dresden Academy by the Nazis. The medium is the message – Dix declares his affiliation with Dürer, founding father of German art.
But perhaps the most compelling artist in this show is another German-born figure, the bafflingly underrated Hendrik Goltzius, whose metalpoint drawings fairly crackle with life. Intimate views of daily existence flow from his stylus – his pet retriever, his garden, his sister leafing through a book, himself in 1589, light catching the top stitching on the brim of his hat, the hint of a wink in his eye.
Best of all are three drawings of a hawk-nosed man, bony but handsome, a certain dry amusement dawning in his face (perhaps in response to Goltzius’s company). These are studies for a full-dress engraving, elaborate and rigidly formal. But where the print pushes the man straight back into history, the metalpoints draw him into our moment, bringing him back to life.
Drawing in Silver and Gold: From Leonardo to Jasper Johns is at the British Museum, London from 10 September to 6 December