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ยป The Poetry of Draped Figures

The Poetry of Draped Figures

Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1548-1608)
A study of the drapery of a seated figure
(Red chalk and some black chalk, heightened with white, on blue paper - Guise bequest 1765)

2nd November - 7th February 2010

The relationship between clothing and the anatomical figure beneath became a major concern for Italian artists of the late 15th century. Leonardo da Vinci’s statement that “draperies that clothe figures should show that they cover living figures” makes clear how fundamental the question of drapery was.

Over thirty Old Master drawings in this exhibition  explored the topic in detail and illustrated its richness and creative power.

The depiction of drapery was too interesting a topic to have sheer utilitarian purpose - its possibilities of capturing movement and volume, dramatising compositions and exploring the effects of light and shade while at the same time evoking the sensuality of the material, tempted artists to study the subject in a multitude of forms. The variety of drawings in this exhibition, from meticulous studies in silverpoint with fine accentuating brushstrokes to voluptuously billowing folds in red chalk, could also be seen as experiments for abstract, almost poetic forms.

Works on display included an early sheet from around 1400 showing three cloaked, column-like figures exemplifying how bodies were depicted and perceived through their clothing during this period. The artists concentrated on the outer shell and disregarded the anatomy of the body that was enveloped by the drapery. The human form was represented through clothing which, by the rendering of elaborate folds, became a powerful compositional tool. Another early drawing on pink coated paper makes an even more daring comment on the subject, showing a mantle composed of three carefully drawn lines – each line more like an ornament than a functional streak, but together they define a pilgrim’s cloak.

Leonardo da Vinci’s theories about the depiction of clad figures and drapery are made visual in his preparatory sketch of a Study of a Sleeve. The drawing pre-empts Leonardo’s later statements on the subject asking artists to “show the attitude and motion of […] a figure with simple enveloping folds”. Artists should be able to depict the characteristics of different materials and the difference in texture. They should, as Leonardo instructs, “make the folds with smooth breaks, and do this with thick fabrics, and some should have soft folds with sides that are not angular but curved. This happens in the case of silk and satin and other thin fabric, such as linen, veiling and the like”. The drapery studies by Figino, one of Leonardo’s followers, show how closely he listened to the master’s rules.

Looking at all the drawings in the exhibition it becomes obvious that they have a pronounced painterly quality, more so than one would expect from a graphic medium. This is due to the use of coloured and grounded paper as well as the combination of several drawing materials in one composition. These devices were used to create greater illusion and to capture the sensuality of the topic with even more drama.



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