There is only one way into Drawings from the Age of Bruegel, Rubens, and Rembrandt at the Harvard Art Museums (through August 14). Not literally, of course you can saunter into the third-floor galleries. But without detail-by-detail attention, the same kind of scrutiny that produced these works, they’re impenetrable. One can no more take them in quickly than one can gulp a caramel.
Bring your sketchpad and begin by spending ten minutes drawing the first work that grabs your fancy. You can’t go wrong, there’s not a bum in the bunch. If that’s not your métier, count bows on the outfit of the shooter in Crossbowman Assisted by a Milkmaid (c.1600-10) by Jacques de Gheyn II. (Six, including the one gift-wrapping his codpiece.) Identify the object on the ground in the Abraham van Diepenbeek portrayal of the mystic Henry Suso. (It’s a writing stylus, of the sort that Suso used to carve the monogram of Jesus Christ into his chest.) Estimate the size of legume that would cover the figures sitting on the river bank in the ink drawing by the aptly named Master of the Small Landscapes. (A lentil.)
Only then should you approach the other works.This kind of art is meant to be studied with the eyes, closely, over the course of years. Contemporary life hardly demands this kind of attention anymore. The Aelbert Cuyp View of Rhenen (c. 1642-46) is a picture of rolling hills, dotted with buildings, of which there are countless examples, yet it is singular. The modulation of value contrast, from the dark scrub in the foreground to the spindly buildings in the middle ground to the faint smudges of copses in the distance, is extraordinary. The mediums are listed as “black chalk, brown and gray wash, green transparent watercolor, white opaque watercolor, and touches of gum arabic.” Cuyp has worked and reworked this little jewel with the vigor, if not the gesture, that one associates with Matisse’s charcoal drawings.
While acknowledging that names like Maarten van Heemskerck are not going to pull people into the building, Bruegel, Rubens, and Rembrandt do indeed shine brightly next to their contemporaries. A Study for Christ for The Elevation of the Cross (1610-11) by Rubens is one of the great figure drawings of all time, with its dancing outside contour and a treatment of the musculature that accounts for every bulge with a concise grace. Rembrandt’s consummate greatness may be a cliché but four centuries haven’t diminished the power of his drawings. He might have thought that Three Studies of a Child and One of a Woman (c.1638-40) was a page of doodles. No matter. His casual scratches snap into recognizability with the surprise of stage magic. But there’s no trick, it’s the genuine miracle of talent.
The neighborhood of ability outside of utter genius was nonetheless handsome. Landscape with a Road and a Fence (1631) by Cornelis Vroom has a soft atmosphere even though it was drawn with a steel pen that is not conducive to producing such things. The specificity here not only captures the details of the falling slats of the fence (all 32 of them) but the feel of summer, its lushness and apricity. If you look at it hard enough you can smell the season.
Symbolism was more of a vogue than a distinct visual art movement, and as such Flowers of Evil: Symbolist Drawings, 1870-1910 (through August 14) next door to Bruegel et al. goes the way of many Symbolism shows: it includes too much, resulting in an inchoate thesis about what the Symbolist impulse accomplished. Woolly theories about the spiritual world were in fashion at the time, notably Theosophy, which is responsible for an undue number of blandly spooky drawings that look as though the artists used their elbows to blend. Odilon Redon, who read Theosophy extensively, can be wonderful, as he is in the undated Head of a Young Woman, his distinctive, nacreous pastel technique on full display. He could also be disappointing, as he is in The Raising of Lazarus, in which the titular figure shows none of the glory of Jesus’s triumph over death and all of the addled irritation of having to get out of bed too early. For some reason his head seems to have been placed on the neck of a giraffe.
It was too easy, and rather misleading, to borrow the title from the famous volume of poems. Baudelaire’s cycle was all damnation and opium smoke. Instead, the viewer here finds a surprising prevalance of mystical Catholicism. There is a a buttery landscape in gouache by Marie-Charles Dulac, who spent the final years of his brief life in increasing emulation of St. Francis, right down to an attempt to establish a brotherhood in the forest. The exhibition also features a self-portrait entitled Godsvertrouwen (Faith in God) (1905-06) by Jan Toorop, a convert to Catholicism who adopted a visionary take on Art Nouveau. Even apart from such figures there’s a Fantin-Latour Satan before the Lord, a Redon Saint Sebastian, an Aubrey Beardsley depiction of Salome, a William Holman Hunt Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, a James Ensor Temptation, and Bart Anthony van der Leck’s The Adoration of the Christ Child. This religious angle would have been a fruitful and novel way to direct the show.
That aside, Claude Emile Schuffenecker provides a 19th century equivalent of the aforementioned Vroom. Landscape with an Orange Tree (1889-91) – it’s literally an orange-colored tree – buzzes with texture and heat. Schuffenecker was part of the Synthetist crowd that included Gauguin and Emile Bernard, which is connected to Symbolism via its admission of artistic subjectivity, in contrast to the relatively objective, scientific attitude of Impressionism. People fight tempestuously over categories and then the results stand on their own, like this Schuffenecker, or don’t. This may be the ultimate legacy of Symbolism: proof that the intellectual climate of a time is crucial to its art, and yet it guarantees nothing and justifies nothing, and a goodly portion of the art may be getting made in spite of it, not because.