Dürer, Michelangelo and Guston I Curator’s nook S5 Ep7

published on July 2, 2020

Hello my name is Hugo Chapman,

I'm the Keeper of Prints and Drawings

and this is my corner

This is where you come to look at our collection

We have a couple of hundred works out in our galleries outside

but the bulk of our collection, somewhere between one and two million bits of paper

is accessible to everyone here in the study room

Now obviously with between one and two million works

selecting a couple of them is rather difficult

so it's somewhat idiosyncratic choice

and I could for every day choose another one

So behind me is a wonderful Durer engraving

and this is him carving with a burin into it into a piece of copper

I suppose this is a work that nobody had seen before

nobody before Durer,

this was a new invention of printing,

had ever made a print quite as wonderful and as beautiful as this

That extraordinary sense of the different textures that he can get,

the softness of the cat's fur, the hardness of the bark

the luminous quality of Adam and Eve's bodies

and this is of course before the fateful moment

Eve is already poised to take that Apple from that rather wicked looking snake

and she's going to plunge us into being expelled from paradise

and if you look in the far right corner

you will see a little goat on top of a precipice

and that is a symbol of mankind poised on the precipice

which we will soon descend down

A familiar story of mankind, I think

And then beside it, if it's my Curator's Corner I couldn't do it without Michelangelo

otherwise I would feel bad about myself

because I did a show about him many years ago

and this is one of those drawings when I'm having a very bad day

and things seem very bleak I come and look at this drawing,

which is a black chalk study from the early 1530s

showing the Resurrection of Christ

so this is Christ after three days rising again from the tomb

Now whether on whether or whether or not you believe in that story

I think you don't have to be a Christian you just have to have a sense of the spiritual

to get that amazing sense of Michelangelo
imparts of Christ's body

which has become magically weightless as smoke

and is twisting very gently, spiraling upwards and the winding sheet

that has covered his body is is coming undone and falling into the tomb

And while Durer's Adam and Eve is giving a sense

of the beautiful classical proportions of Adam and Eve

Michelangeloactually subverts that because, once you look at it you realise

that Christ's body is much much bigger
than the soldiers around him

and he's in fact reverting to a much older tradition

where sacred bodies are bigger than human bodies

So one gets a sense of Michelangelo's own spirituality

and his longing and yearning to be admitted into heaven

So I think it's a very special work but of course

there are many other great things by Michelangelo here

I think, well the reason I I love it is, is is I think that's

the imagining of weightlessness and of course you know

all of us in the twentieth century kind of know what weightlessness is like

you know we've seen astronauts
bouncing around on on the moon

but for an artist to imagine what weightlessness is like

and it's just that sense of ascent but very very slow

I find utterly magical and you know it's a drawing
that I go back to

and each time find something new in it

and there is there was a sort of meditative quality about it that I find very special

So my next choice is is really to highlight the fact

that prints and drawings and indeed the British Museum in general

collects lots of work from the modern and contemporary period

but of course we're so famous for our marbles and mummies

that often that gets overlooked so to my right is this great drawing from 1968

by the American artist Philip Guston

And Philip Guston had been a very pure abstract artist

which was the prevailing style in America

but in 1968 he began to return to figuration

and this form develops in his work which is this sort of bandaged figure

which eventually becomes a ku klux klan figure with a sort of cone-shaped hat on

and what I think is wonderful about this work

is you see that kind of form emerging so at the moment this is something like a kind of

Frankenstein figure with just the eyes

but if you follow the the dots or the dashes probably

you can see the idea that there is this triangular form sort of in in his head

and that is going to become the prevailing figure

So this this this this kind of figure with the bandages

is at one level the kind of an everyman for Philip Guston

but at the same time has got these dark undercurrents of the Ku Klux Klan

because when he was growing up in Los Angeles

he remembered Ku Klux Klan meetings and

so that kind of suggests this sort of unpleasant racist strain in American society

and in 1968 of course America was exploding with Civil Rights

and it was a very dark year

So there's there's many many more works by modern contemporary artists and that's really

the part of our collection that actively grows

because we have to collect the history of graphic art from the 1400s until today

You could in a way look at the Guston figure and think about Adam and Eve by Durer

or indeed the Michelangelo figure,

you could think of his use of charcoal and look at Durer's use of charcoal,

there are so many kind of associations and that's the richness of having a graphic collection

quite so massive as ours that you're not looking just for a kind of artistic way

you're looking for what can this artwork tell us, tell future generations

about what it is to be alive today, what we're worried about, what makes us happy,

what makes us unhappy, because the artworks of the past are extraordinarily revealing about that

Thank you very much for watching and we very much look forward to you coming

and looking at the millions of work we have available here

in the Prints and Drawings study room

And if you've enjoyed this Curator's Corner please subscribe

so you can watch others done by my colleagues

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