The great art event in Oxford this summer is undoubtedly the exhibition of Raphael’s drawings at the Ashmolean Museum (June - September 2017). The vast majority of the drawings come from the impressive collection of the Ashmolean itself and from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. The show has received enthusiastic reviews – it’s been described as a “once-in-a-lifetime exhibition” (Ashmolean), “stunning” (The Times), “magnificent” (The Guardian), “unmissable” (The Telegraph), etc.
If you have the chance to see the exhibition, you would realize that none of these superlatives are exaggerations. As always, with Raphael you have the guarantee that you enter a world of pure beauty. Probably no other artist has been so fully devoted to exploring and creating beauty for its own sake. Here, I would like to consider some of the Viennese connections.
What drawings as preliminary studies for a painting do is that they give you an idea of the process of the conception of the work, the development of Raphael’s creative ideas in this case. A fully finished painting can hardly do that. For example, for anyone familiar with the Vienna Madonna of the Meadow, one of Raphael’s most celebrated paintings, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, it would be revealing to see the drawing, which was a study for the painting.
Or, notice, for example, the studies for The Massacres of the Innocents that have been grouped together in order to show the development of Raphael’s initial idea and the subsequent revisions and transformations in the later versions. The Albertina drawing on the subject from 1509-1510 can be seen alongside later studies – one from the British Museum, another from Budapest. You can literally follow Raphael’s thought process from one study to another and then to the final version, i.e., the engraving of 1513 from the Ashmolean collection.
Some of the drawings are exciting on their own. The Vienna Studies for Three Standing Men in red chalk will not fail to attract the attention of an art lover. Raphael sent this wonderful drawing of three male nudes to Albrecht Dürer in Nürenberg and the pen inscription on the drawing is, in fact, by Dürer. Some of the drawings are intriguing for the explicit references to other artists. The Two Male Nude Figures, c.1506-1507, again from the Albertina, are variations on Michelangelo’s Bathers. The standing female nude in the lower part of the drawing is clearly based on Leonardo’s Leda. While Raphael was obviously drawing inspiration from the work of his contemporaries, his drawings, perhaps even more than his paintings, reveal his manner of creative borrowing and inventiveness. Children at Play, another piece in Vienna, is full of references to classical sculpture and iconographical types by Michelangelo. At the same time, the playful putti, i.e., small, chubby children who move, turn, kick, and stumble over are all Raphael’s.
As one of my students once informed me, of course, he had heard of Raphael - from the turtle ninjas. This made me feel so much better about Raphael’s reputation – literally everyone has heard of Raphael. However, if you want to do a bit better than that and get into the mind of one of the great Renaissance masters, get a sense of the way in which his thought worked, it is Raphael’s drawings that you would like to see. Not only the ninjas, but even the famous paintings by the great artist won’t do that as well as his preliminary studies. In this sense, the show at the Ashmolean in Oxford is a reminder, among other things, of one of the great but not widely-known art treasures in Vienna.