January 1, 2012 § 8 Comments
How did you first become interested in prints and drawings?
Like clockwork, this question comes up in every interview I’ve ever had for a curatorial post in prints and drawings. Of course, my interviewers aren’t looking for a dissertation on the subject, so I just give a short-and-sweet answer about the time I’ve spent in print study rooms poring over the works themselves. The long answer, though, would be something like the following.
Rewind ten years. My MA course is on a study trip to Paris (one of my coursemates aptly describes the MA as ‘a hell of a lot of work with a trip to Paris stuck in the middle’) with our tutor. It isn’t my first time in Paris, but it’s my first time there with such a knowledgeable guide. He takes us to the Musée d’Orsay and discourses at length on Olympia and Déjeuner sur l’herbe, to Chartier for a glimpse of 1890s Paris caught in amber, to Père Lachaise to gawk at the graves of the artistic great and good (there’s an incriminating photo of us poised to press lipstick kisses on Oscar Wilde’s tomb floating around somewhere) and finally… to the Musée Gustave Moreau.
How to describe the Musée Gustave Moreau to someone who’s never visited? Take a huge canvas of a mythological subject (anything is fair game, but bonus points if it includes a femme fatale and/or a wilting androgyne) that looks as if it’s been painted with jewels rather than oils. Then multiply it by several hundred and hang them floor to ceiling in two cavernous ateliers with salmon-coloured walls, and you begin to get the idea. It’s slightly overheated, slightly dim and more than slightly forlorn, but it has its partisans. André Breton haunted it as a teenager and claimed that Moreau had “influenced forever [his] idea of love” (this probably goes some way to explaining Breton’s multiple marriages, but I digress), and Edmund White includes a hilariously snarky description of it in The Flâneur (though he has the good grace to admit in the afterword that he was rather unfair on the museum and Moreau).
Once my eyes and brain have adjusted to this bejeweled hothouse, I begin to explore, and it’s a matter of minutes before I stumble upon the cases of drawings. I’ve never seen anything like them before. The drawings aren’t framed and hung in orderly rows on walls, or stacked neatly in solander boxes. Instead, Moreau himself designed the cases – two wall-mounted racks of glass panels that can be rifled through like the pages of an enormous book, and a freestanding cube from which sliding panels containing watercolours emerge like pieces of an elaborate puzzle. I sit down at the racks and turn the giant pages, enchanted. It’s like taking a private tour of Moreau’s imagination, watching ideas take shape and evolve before my eyes. There’s a freedom and fluidity to them that’s often missing from the lapidary paintings, and an intimacy to the experience of looking at them. Hundreds of visitors past may have sat where I am now, but as I leaf through the panels, the drawings seem to unfold their secrets for me alone.
I’d be lying if I said that I decided on the spot to devote my life to studying prints and drawings, but that was the day the seed of a lifelong passion was planted. This blog is a place for me to write about this passion in a more informal way than I do in my day-to-day work – prints, drawings and any other creative thoughts that start their life on paper.
Come back for more.