Michaelangelo Big Toe Worth Trip to Morgan

When you enter the first room of Master Drawings from the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is currently on view at the Morgan Library, you know at once that you are in for an extraordinary experience. For you are straightaway confronted with the heroic age of Renaissance and Baroque draftsmanship-an age in which the most inspired talents in Western art concentrated their most ambitious efforts on the daunting task of transforming their merely human models into images of gods and saints and other exalted figures of the Classical and Biblical imagination. Never before, and only rarely after, was the art of drawing-drawing from life, as we say-to be engaged at this level of aesthetic intensity in the service of moral and religious fervor.

Thus, the first drawing that we encounter on the left-hand wall of the first room in the exhibition is a complex figure composition of a sacred subject, The Funeral of St. Stephen (circa 1460), now confidently attributed to Fra Filippo Lippi. Then, in quick succession, there is a Perugino drawing of a male nude, St. Sebastian (circa 1493); a Raphael sheet of Studies of a Seated Female, Child’s Head, and Three Studies of a Baby (circa 1507-8), with its echoes of Leonardo’s rendering of the Christ child in his Benois Madonna; and, on a stand by itself, a two-sided work by Michelangelo containing Study for the Nude Youth over the Prophet Daniel (1510-11) on its front, and Figure Studies for the Sistine Ceiling on the verso, the latter especially remarkable for the artist’s repeated attempts to get the drawing of the male model’s big toe as perfect as possible.

Who would have thought that the drawing of a toe could be as deeply engaging as it is here? But this was, after all, just one detail among many in a superhuman attempt to depict nothing less than the Creation of Life and the Fall of Man. For Michelangelo, certainly, God was to be seen as manifested in such mundane material detail, and nothing less than perfection would do.

Michelangelo is, as you might expect, a hard act to follow, yet awaiting the visitor to the exhibition in the near distance are Veronese’s Various Sketches of the Madonna and Child (1595-97), Annibale Carracci’s Hercules Resting (circa 1580) and Guercino’s Venus and Cupid (1615-17). And then, almost abruptly-and perhaps for the benefit of visitors to the exhibition, who might be expected to be easily wearied of so many allusions to Classical and Biblical subjects now only dimly understood by the mainstream art public-we are returned to the vicissitudes of earthly life with Piazzetta’s robust drawing of A Young Woman Buying a Pink from a Young Man (circa 1740), a work that lends itself to a variety of suggestive interpretations, none of them saintly.

As is inevitably the case with an exhibition of drawings selected from a collection that encompasses the entire history of Western art, from the Renaissance in Italy and Germany to 20th-century abstraction and Pop Art, the levels of accomplishment and ambition in this show are varied, to say the least. Some of the later drawings in the exhibition-Thomas Hart Benton’s amusing G.O.P. Convention, Cleveland (1936), for example, and Edward Ruscha’s less amusing Bronson Tropics (1965)-hardly qualify as anything more than accomplished illustrations. Even a fine draftsman like Reginald Marsh is poorly represented by a watercolor drawing of an automobile, Coupe (1931).

Far stronger is the representation of 20th-century modernism, with works like Georges Braque’s The Violin (early 1914), a masterpiece of Cubist collage; Joan Miró’s wild and wonderful Woman with Blond Armpit Combing Her Hair by the Light of the Stars (1940), a fine example from the artist’s Constellations series, which, when first exhibited in New York in 1945, exerted a significant influence on New York School abstraction; and Picasso’s early Reclining Nude (Fernande) (1906), which, in its modeling of the subject’s head, gives us a preview of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon that was soon to follow.

The selections devoted to 19th- and early-20th-century American drawings contain some amazing things as well: among them, Winslow Homer’s dazzling nocturnal watercolor of a Leaping Trout (1889); a rare drawing by Thomas Wilmer Dewing called Gloria (1884), in a Stanford White frame almost more interesting than the drawing; a brilliant watercolor drawing of May Day, Central Park (1901) by Maurice Prendergast; a really lugubrious watercolor of Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night (1917) by Charles Burchfield; and two watercolor drawings by Charles Demuth, Dancing Sailors (1917) and Amaryllis (circa 1923), the juxtaposition of which gives us a glimpse of two very different subjects that were of keen interest to this master of the watercolor medium.

Not everything in Master Drawings is the work of a master, and the level of accomplishment does tend to decline as we approach the present era. Can we take this to represent a less stringent standard in the museum’s judgment of relatively recent drawings, as well as a lower level of interest? Or does it reflect an actual level of decline in the work itself? Probably both. Michelangelo is indeed a hard act to follow. Nevertheless, Master Drawings from the Cleveland Museum of Art is an exhibition that everyone with an appreciation of the art of drawing will want to see and, indeed, revisit. It remains on view at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through Aug. 19.