THE HIDDEN DRAWINGS OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM Review
By Ali El-hashimi, AA 3rd year (Intermediate Unit 10)
16 March 2016
The British Museum, London
The British Museum. Gallery 90. Behind a Michelangelo drawing is the entrance to the prints and drawing room. Stored here is approximately 50,000 drawings and 2 million prints. Ranked as one of the largest and best print room collections in existence alongside the Albertina in Vienna, the Paris collections and the Hermitage in Russia. The collection is very versatile and the drawings stored here are quite surprising, from entire sketchbooks of Turner to Goya and more recent works like that of Agnes Martin. The museum has the national collection in terms of prints and drawings, while the Tate and the National Gallery have the paintings. The fact that this part of the museum is hardly known compared to the other departments is a shame since most of the drawings and prints are never actually seen by the public. Arguably these are the crown jewels of the museum and this is what people should be going to see and having a closer look at it.
I was given the opportunity to do exactly that, courtesy of the museum. Trying a new programme with The Bridget Riley Foundation, it was set up to mostly bring exposure to the drawing collection but also promote the importance of drawing. A series of workshops lead and curated by artists who use drawing as a practise.
Watercolour by Turner, 1820
After a meeting with the museum I was offered to curate and lead one of them. To explain further, taken from the invitation that the museum had sent out: “Part of the Bridget Riley Art Foundation at the British Museum, Translations explores the graphic works in the collection of Prints and Drawings collection through the lens of practicing artists. Over the span of three workshops individual artists will reflect on works they have mined from our archive and explain how these works resonate with their personal practice. Workshop participants will learn about the artworks through artist interpretation and discussion of artistic practice; sessions will end with time for the participants to draw from the collections themselves.”
By “personal practice” this is specifically talking about a personal project that began last year focusing on the relationship between film and architecture through a series of drawings.
Mädchen am Meer (Girl by the sea), etching by Rudolf Jettmar, 1890s
This is briefly mentioned in the PNYX piece I had written (issue 11) which served as a final conclusion to the previous articles written for AA Conversations and in a way this final piece brings the whole thing full circle starting from a simple observation of Villa Tugendhat.
My role in this was quite straightforward- dive deep into the drawing collection and find work that relates to what I do, for the workshop. It may seem daunting to search through a large database with millions of works but I had some idea of what I was looking for and begun by looking back at my philosophy on drawing.
Although very subjective, I do not see myself as a person who can draw well but rather my drawings, specifically the film drawing series, have a certain draughtsman quality where I try to record as much detail as I can, and this can sometimes be a speculation of what’s actually there. This also brings about an interesting point that actually most set designers start off as draughtsman who have a background in architecture. As a result of this, sets have become sophisticated in achieving a particular type of believable reality depending on the narrative. In a place where most work is rendered, it is refreshing to see line drawings not because it is better or has an advantage over the other but in my opinion they are more challenging to do in terms of trying to get it to evoke something, and only ever works when a large amount of detail has been recorded, whether it be the bricks on a façade, the pattern of a ceiling, or even the cracks on a wall giving the paper an etched quality; it’s all about the detail. They also have a certain honesty to them that can’t be achieved with other techniques; the pure essence of form. A technique which takes the line drawing to the next level is etching. By including light and shadow to give the subject depth using only line, there is something quite powerful about representing the fullness of humanity using just line. Thus, etchings became the starting point of my search.
In preparation for the workshop I was given a limit of 10 drawings to choose. I wasn’t just looking for technique but rather the more important elements such as the way a drawing is framed, lit, or depending on the context of the people’s relationship to a space. All very conscious decisions used in cinema- sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive.
At the start I had 100 drawings which I found interesting. This had to be narrowed down to the final 10, with some very similar to each other and others completely different, but all of them would fall under one topic cinematic quality. For the workshop’s sake I had to pick drawings other than etchings to allow for variety but would still be part of the same theme. In the end, what I ended up with is a series of drawings that don’t directly relate to the drawing series but rather a way of thinking that reflects how I approach things. The chosen drawings start off very architectural but by the end the drawings just focus on people with each one exploring a different way of framing, relating back to my PNYX piece about the human condition.
All the points mentioned above were discussed during the workshop. These are the many reasons of how I managed to make my personal project relate to the museum’s drawing collection. By the end of the workshop there were some interesting points that came up for the students but also for me as well to rethink the project and push it in new directions. It is a very exciting prospect that a museum would have such drawings and I’d recommend anyone to go check out the museum’s collection as this is something far superior than any holding a gallery has at one time and are allowed to get as close as possible to the work.
As a final note, it is nice to work on something outside of studio since opportunities like this rarely arise. As a result it has served as inspiration to inform both my personal project and work within the unit. It also gives me motivation to carry on with the project which will eventually be published as a book.
Que se la llevaron! (They carried her off!), etching by Goya, 1799
Special thanks to:
Oskar and Adolfo of PNYX, without them this wouldn’t have been possible.
Sarah Jaffray of The British Museum for the opportunity, it was an honour.
For more information:
Search the drawing collection online
Visit the drawing room
Previous event at the British museum with The Bridget Riley Foundation
PNYX Issue 11
Narratives in Video Games by Ali El-hashimi on AA Conversations
The Steel Column by Ali El-hashimi on AA Conversations