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The Black Arts: 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints

The Getty Museum shines a light on some dark works.

Théodore Géricault, Sailboat on a Raging Sea, about 1818 – 1819

Théodore Géricault, Sailboat on a Raging Sea, about 1818 – 1819, brush and brown wash, blue watercolor, opaque watercolor, over black chalk, 15.2 x 24.7 cm (6 x 9 3⁄4 in.).

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The second half of the 19th century in France, a period associated with black suits and black soot, was also a time when black came to the fore in drawing and printmaking. Perhaps it was a reflection of the zeitgeist—the fevered horror of Edgar Allan Poe was finding particular favor in France—but the black that became increasingly basic to the works of artists including Redon, Bresdin, Courbet, and Seurat was also the product of changing artistic technology, argue the curators of “Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints,” a fascinating new exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (on view February 9–May 15). Around 1850, charcoal (fusain), a medium that had been used for centuries by the Old Masters to create erasable underdrawing, was adopted as a fitting technique for finished works. Why? According to Getty drawings curator Lee Hendrix, who spearheaded the show, the answer is simple: Fixative. The invention of a chemical process that could coat a drawing so as to prevent the charcoal marks from dusting off the paper motivated artists to push charcoal to new levels of expressiveness. And the achievements of the fusainistes inspired other artists to seek similarly dark, brooding, and mysterious effects in printmaking media such as etching and aquatint.

As Hendrix writes in the catalogue, the seed of the exhibition was planted more than a decade ago, when the Getty acquired a charcoal landscape by Maxime Lalanne, a fairly conservative artist. Castle Overlooking a River, circa 1860s–70s, breaks no particular compositional ground, but its dreamy, soft-focus effect epitomizes a style that was becoming extremely popular among French landscape artists. In 1862 Lalanne published a charcoal-drawing instruction manual which made him the progenitor of a whole school of fusainistes. Soon artists with more avant-garde ideas would adopt Lalanne’s techniques and use them to create moodier, more dramatic, and more mysterious effects. And the taste for heavy deployment of black spread to include other drawing media such as conté crayon and black chalk, as well as the printmaking techniques of etching and aquatint. For Hendrix and her colleagues, the donation of the Lalanne sparked a long exploration of the aesthetic, technical, and optical properties of so-called black media. The show was sourced from Getty holdings and from drawings and print collections in the Los Angeles area, facilitated by what director Timothy Potts refers to as “a support group of drawings enthusiasts known as the Disegno Group,” which was formed by the Getty’s Drawings Department in 2012 and funded the acquisition of a number of works in this show.

The works on view use black media to evoke a wide range of emotions, from the serene to the macabre. Seurat’s Poplars (circa 1883–84) takes the backlit effect of Castle Overlooking a River and blows it up to the point where the boundary between the landscape and the paper it’s drawn on becomes obscured. Seurat’s trees start to emerge from a shimmering mist only to fall back again. Distinction of foreground and background becomes meaningless. Another Seurat drawing in the show, Madame Seurat, the Artist’s Mother (circa 1882–83), uses the charcoal and the way it interacts with the paper’s texture to create a subtle, glowing quality. Odilon Redon, a Symbolist artist, coaxed a spiritual, otherworldly black light from charcoal in Apparition (circa 1880–90). In this drawing, the faintly smiling head of a bearded man, wearing a crown or jeweled headdress, is surrounded by what may be clouds and rays of light or perhaps representations of thought-forms and creative energies. He may be an ancient king, or he may be God himself. In any case, the black radiance of this visionary drawing is made possible by the medium used. As Hendrix puts it, in reference to a good number of the works on view, “The cosmic fantastic nature of the subject matter has everything to do with the black medium.”

An earlier drawing, Millet’s The Cat at the Window (circa 1857–58), in conté crayon and pastel, also treats fantastic subject matter. It illustrates a fable of La Fontaine in which a man wishes for his beloved cat to become a woman so that he might marry her. Though the fable is humorous, Millet’s image is eerie.

The light coming through the mullioned panes, the cat rendered as a silhouette except for its glowing eye, the curtain opening inward as if pushed by a ghostly hand—or paw—all give the drawing a quality of delightful weirdness that couldn’t be achieved in color. Hendrix speculates that the harsh new socioeconomic realities of the mid- to late 19th century caused many in France to want to “retreat from the industrial world into a dream realm.” The grit spewed into the air by the factories becomes the grit of the charcoal that French artists applied to paper to create their dream worlds, whether of wonder or of horror.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2016

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