Own Reward

Behind the Scenes with Drawings: Renaissance to Rococo

At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, through July 9.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

cambiaso.gifDo you ever get the feeling walking through an art exhibition that the curator is worried you could be out looking at other images — bigger, more colorful, high-definition images? I’ve been in some galleries lately that were so multimedia and so high-impact that they ought to be on medication for attention deficit disorder.

This is not a problem for the current drawing exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Behind the Scenes with Drawings: Renaissance to Rococo gives you both your own space and rewards you for stepping in front of each of its works. In some cases, such as Luca Cambiaso’s “The Infant Jesus Taking His First Steps” (pictured), the reward is the charm of a simple family scene and a sure, light touch with pen and ink. In others, like Bortoloni’s “Presentation in the Temple,” it’s all about the sophistication of strangely abstract drapery. Part of the delight in this show is how varied the selections are, both in technique and in subject matter. For me, the jewels are Baschiloff’s “Artist’s Meal,” a work so small one has to lean in to consider the still life on a table within the larger scene; and Francesco Salviati’s “Copy of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Dead Christ,” wherein the head and torso are devotedly rendered in red chalk.

The setting is appropriate for quiet contemplation and delectation: the drawings hang in a room just off the central courtyard, the walls painted a darkish beige that sets off the mostly monochromatic works. And, if you feel like reading rather than ogling, you can pick up something about the history of drawing. The introductory essay skillfully describes how these works would have been used and the role they played in a pre-photographic culture. Most of the wall labels follow up by mentioning the specific purpose of each drawing. As the exhibition makes clear, none of these works were made for display or even for viewing by anyone beyond the immediate circle of artist, collaborators, and patrons. Perhaps the resulting lack of self-consciousness is part of their deep allure.

Although the show accompanies the exhibition of paintings from the Wadsworth Atheneum also on display in the museum, I didn’t follow the cross-connections between the two shows that the wall labels suggested. Maybe you will if you have more time. The only false notes were the few label comments involving contemporary references (Orlando Bloom, Isla Vista revelry) or outdated slang (“tough guys,” “cream puff”). These rang as pandering in a show otherwise impressive for its understated splendor.

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