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Master Drawings Displays Great Art in the Making

Heavy Traffic
With its expanded spaces and renovated, updated architecture (not to mention its dazzling first-floor restrooms designed by installation artists Sandy Skoglund ’68 and Ellen Driscoll), the Smith College Museum of Art has jumped further toward the forefront of college and university art venues. With its elevated distinction has come increased traffic in the museum, says Margi Caplan, membership and marketing director. According to Caplan, the total attendance at the museum since its April opening (34,000 visitors) equals the museum’s total average annual attendance before the renovation/expansion

Any finished work of art, connoisseurs know, is likely the cumulative product of countless hours and numerous renditions, isolated studies and preliminary sketches, a process of honing and perfecting on the way to the resultant final piece. To view the works in progress and preparatory exercises that lead to a finished work-to notice the ideas and concepts that survive through to the completed piece-is to witness the becoming, in many cases, of a timeless masterpiece.

The shadowing and the shapes of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” for example, are evident in two impressionistic sketches he made on the way to finishing that well-known work, which is now the property of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Those two sketches-as well as a room full of other “practice” works and some finished pieces-are part of Master Drawings from the Smith College Museum of Art (Part II), now on display in the museum through October 19.

The Seurat sketches are two of at least 27 the artist made in preparation for the final piece (in addition to 27 more painted panels and three canvases). “Three Young Women” and “Head of a Woman” foreshadow the brushy, vague figures of the famous painting, which was completed in 1886. As with many of Seurat’s works, and with these drawings, his subjects seem to gain definition with distance.

Other drawings in the collection include “Still Life: Fruit and Flowers” by Henri Mattisse; “View of Castle Doorweth, Near Arnhem,” by Jan Toorop; and works by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, Maurice Prendergast, Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall and several other renowned artists.

“I feel like there’s something here for just about everyone,” says Aprile Gallant, associate curator of prints, drawing and photographs, and director of the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, which will officially open in September. “Master Drawings covers a wide range of the museum’s holdings.”

Alice Neel’s “Peggy” is a powerfully unflinching penciled portrait of an elderly woman that gives detailed emphasis to her clenched hands, with their fingers groping around one other, and to the woman’s unremitting, furrowed face, which seems to be holding back a lifetime of fear, uncertainty and practiced stoicism.

A much different work, Henry Spencer Moore’s “Ideas for Sculpture: Studies of Internal and External Forms,”offers a series of embryonic shapes hovering in a wash of gray-red spill that suggests familiarity while defying definition.

The exhibition, which features works from the late 19th and the 20th centuries, was drawn from a traveling exhibition during the museum’s two-year closure that visited the Frick Collection in New York, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, and Fundación “la Caixin” in Madrid, Spain. Part I of the exhibition, which opened last April at the expanded museum’s reopening, featured works from the 15th through 19th centuries.

Master Drawings is one of four special exhibitions on display in the museum as students arrive for the new year. Also adorning the facility’s spaces are The Floating World, a display of wood block prints and painted scrolls of Japan in the Edo period that first ran in April as part of the museum’s re-opening; African Artistry: Insight and Imagination, a diverse exhibition of mixed styles and media that explores a range of artistic imagination among Africa’s peoples; and Sit Up and Take Notice!: A Gathering of Artist Benches, which features 11 commissioned works of art that double as public seating for museum visitors.

But for those interested in experiencing the process of making fine art and viewing great works on the way to completion, Master Drawings is the exhibition to see.

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