Secret Treasures at the Crocker

Imagine walking into a room and suddenly being transported to another time, another place. A place where satyrs raise families, where temples slowly crumble in Arcadian decay. A place where miniature cows graze in tiny fields, or an army of 1/8th-inch tall soldiers march across a field.

That’s how I felt this week—transported―when I walked into the The Artist’s View: Landscape Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum. While the big show currently at the museum is the Norman Rockwell show, there’s a hidden treasure on the second floor that I highly recommend. The show only runs through January 6, 2013, so see it while you can!

Willem van Bemmel Landscape
One of the drawings in the exhibition. Not my favorite, but the only one I could find an image of. Willem van Bemmel, Landscape with an Artist Sketching, n.d. Black chalk on beige laid paper, laid down to beige laid secondary support, 6 1/8 x 7 15/16 in. Crocker Art Museum, E. B. Crocker Collection

The exhibition features drawings from the 17th through the 19th centuries from the museum’s permanent collection. Most of the artists were new to me, but that didn’t make them any less amazing. Most are small: from perhaps 3 x 4 inches, to about 12” by 20,” these are ink and chalk and graphite drawings (and a couple of watercolors) and sketches of hillsides, trees, Greek temples in idyllic settings. The latter may not be to our modern tastes, but to anyone interested in seeing how someone works, they’re fabulous.

The museum kindly has a few magnifying glasses for visitors to use “for a closer look” at these small works. With them, you can see teeny figures done in ink (with quill pens, remember), or that family of satyrs in their forest home. Or you can just get a closer look at the individual strokes of the quill that form branches or the squiggles that transform into leaves when you stand back to look at the entire work. For the artist, it’s a great opportunity to look at the technique of these predecessors working 150 or 250 years ago.

I’ve heard that one of the reasons modern artists don’t get the effects these earlier artists did is that the paper we have available today is different (this is the Era of Bad Paper, after all). I could clearly see the difference in some of these works, on blue or cream laid paper. Some were made with brushes, some with charcoal, and others with chalk. The white highlights could be very subtle or bright washes—but they all seemed softer and yet more precise than most one sees today.

It’s a gem of a show. Where the Crocker did fall down, however, is in the gift shop: there’s not one image of any of these pieces on a postcard or print anywhere. I wanted to take a couple home with me (on postcards) so I could study how they were made. No luck. So literally, you may never get to see these works again.

And the Rockwell show? It’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure why illustrators get such a bad rap.

 

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