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29 March 2010

Old Masters

Drawing A Crowd

I have drawn in Italy since my student days almost 30 years ago. While at first I was anxious about Italians staring over my shoulder while I worked, a compliment or two went a long way to emboldening me to draw in places where crowds couldn’t be avoided. On a Gabriel Prize in France ten years after graduation I drew in the packed corridors of the Louvre, where I was jostled, filmed by Japanese tourists, and occasionally complimented. As I have grown more sure in my abilities, I have begun to relish my role as a sort of “performance artist,” since what I do is just rare enough that I see my role as partly evangelical, spreading the word about the value of drawing after the Old Masters.

In that light nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to draw a crowd of kids when I’m at work in Italy. Italian children, still largely uncorrupted by the crush of technology that buries most American kids, are instinctively fascinated by someone drawing: I can almost guarantee that Italian pre-teens will pull their parents to watch me at work, and they are not shy about expressing admiration (imagining, no doubt, that I am much more famous than I am in fact). Other kids in other places have stopped to watch me at work, but nowhere else as consistently. I believe many children, with encouragement (or at least without discouragement) from their parents, love to draw, and associate being artistic with being able to draw (i.e. represent) accurately what they see. Representational art is natural, proper to us: we have to be taught to “like” non-representational art, and since we naturally appreciate representational art we also naturally appreciate those who do it well (the Old Masters) over the moderns who mostly do not.

This anecdotal experience is related in my mind with its antipode: the hard sell of Modern art, the blockbuster push of shows like Philadelphia’s Picasso, tied in with products for sale in the shops and even the restaurant. One gets the sense that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is almost embarrassed by its pre-nineteenth century collections, so patently un-hip, stuffy, out of step with our new millennium. Taking advantage recently of a free afternoon in the City of Brotherly Love, I decided to spend it at the Museum, where the signs announced late openings on Friday evenings until 8:45pm. Paying to park in the new lot (free parking until recently was the norm), I forked over the exorbitant $16 admission fee (I skipped the special Picasso admission, to the ticket seller’s surprise), confirmed that I could leave the premises (to see the restored Waterworks) and return, and headed straight to the stairs, past Pablo and up to the Renaissance-and-after wing (the north wing, fyi). I happily drew for a couple of hours (no audience), then took a break to see the Waterworks, thinking I’d return to draw for another hour or so, then treat myself to dinner at the Museum’s restaurant. After visiting the medieval wing (top floor south) I returned to the Renaissance to draw after a terracotta bust by Benedetto da Maiano; not five minutes into it a guard stood over my shoulder, not to watch but to tell me it was time to leave the galleries—the entire upstairs closes at 5pm! This while Picasso was happily open, the great main floor lobby outside the show turned into a boisterous “cabaret” with music and drinks. No doubt covered by the dust of the past I shuffled down to the restaurant.
My server announced the menu’s special entrée was a rice dish invented for Picasso; I ordered the crab cakes.

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