Nameless – Anonymous Drawings of 15th & 16th Century Italy

May 2010

Publication: The Times

What's in a name? This is the crucial question posed by this show of exquisite but anonymous Italian Renaissance drawings on loan from the British Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Courtauld Gallery. The exhibition, conceived and curated by Moray Art Centre's Director, Randy Klinger, although modest in scale, is highly ambitious in the issues it seeks to raise and explore. It is timed, appropriately, to coincide with the current British Museum show 'Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings'.


Although these fifteen small drawings can be loosely grouped in terms of chronology and geography they are disparate in technique, medium and purpose. They range from a study, 'St. Sebastian', in pen and brown ink wash on pink paper to 'The Virgin Mary and Two Holy Women' drawn with metal-point on lilac prepared paper.   The red chalk schizzo 'Virgin and Child and St. Anne' is a rare example of its kind as such slight sketches were rarely preserved. Although most of these are clearly preparatory drawings, workshop exercises or even rapid sketches (in the case of 'Studies of sculpture in St. Agostino, Rome) – others are fully worked and complete.  


'The Adoration of the Christ Child', originally attributed to Fra Filippo Lippi, is clearly a finished work. The detailed pen and ink wash study is copiously detailed and includes an ornate decorative paper mount. It shows the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels, one of whom offers up the Christ child for the Virgin's adoring ministrations. A star-burst of light is clearly visible on the ground occupying the space where the infant Christ lay a few moments before. Although the finely detailed study on vellum is now faded and discoloured, it has a power and an intimacy lacking in many grander works. Such intimacy allows one to assume it was commissioned for a domestic interior while the ornate mount suggests that the image was greatly valued, both as a spiritual and an aesthetic object.


The one binding factor in all of these works, however, is the apparent anonymity not only of the artists who created them but also, in some cases, the identity of their subject matter.


The undated 'Portrait drawing of a man' was labelled by one Victorian commentator as a 'bust of a man resembling A. Dürer'; later the great German draughtsman was even designated as the portrait's creator. Both hypotheses are highly unlikely but their existence does illustrate the attributive impulse felt by many art historians, critics, curators and collectors — as well as the interested public.  


But how does our not knowing the identity of the highly accomplished artist who created this nuanced, detailed portrait affect the way we respond to it? Does artistic anonymity diminish the viewing experience and devalue the currency of aesthetic response?  It's an interesting philosophical issue and one that deserves considered debate.  Nevertheless, it's clear that the attribution of a famous name can markedly alter the viewer's response. Although the actual work may remain unaltered the revelation, say, that this was conclusively  by the hand or Raphael, Mantegna or Michelangelo would substantially alter the audience's reaction and perception of the work.


Although anonymity may create frustration it also creates a special set of viewing circumstances – among these are a closer observation of the works themselves and the scholarly exploration of every contextual clue. This approach is apparently underlined by the absence of interpretative wall panels, encouraging closer attention to the works. 


While holding such an exhibition in northern Scotland may at first seem incongruous and unusual, the more one considers the idea the more sense it makes. Why should those who live here not have access to some of the highest and most beautiful achievements that humanity has to offer? It is certainly helping to put this state-of-the-art, geothermally powered, art centre on the artistic map of Scotland and outlines the ambitious nature of the gallery's future exhibiting policy.