Christ Church Picture Gallery

Wednesday, 08 November 2017

Entering Christ Church picture gallery feels like entering a sacred temple due to the descending steps into the gallery, a “cathedral[s] of art”, as these galleries are often described. [1] The current exhibition ‘Drawing in Rome’, curated by Jacqueline Thalmann, only proceeds to extend this curiosity, as what lies within the temporary exhibition space in the left wing of the gallery is a treasure cove of drawings. Taken directly from Christ Church’s collection, the show exhibits 33 pieces of artwork from the 1400s – 1600s, focusing on works on paper, with most of these being ink or chalk drawings, illustrating “the different artistic forces and personalities” in Roman artistic culture. [2] As the title of the exhibition suggests, all of these chosen works unite under the definition of drawings and have ties with Rome, whether this is linked to antiquity and Roman architecture, or whether a painting includes a Roman setting.

Upon entering the exhibition, you cannot fail to recognise the small size of the exhibition and in turn its intimate space. A shame at first perhaps, but as you look closer you can appreciate the intimacy. The first two works the viewer comes into contact with when entering the room are The Colosseum from the arch of Titus and The Roman Forum (flooded, looking towards the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Capitol). Both images seen here set the scene for the exhibition. The viewer is introduced to the topic through Roman buildings, which leads onto sculpture and architecture, ‘… captures a view of Rome where nature is threatening to take over the ancient monuments’.

These two works are displayed before the exhibition progresses on to statue studies and elements seen in landscape drawings, such as One of the Horse Tamers, chosen to explain how the study of Roman and Greek sculpture was essential for training to become an artist and how Rome was a famous artistic destination. Running strongly with the Roman theme and linking this work to the next piece on the right, the exhibition then displays a landscape named Landscape drawing of the setting of the statues of the horse tamers, a drawing showing the statue of the horse tamers on a smaller scale in a completed landscape. It is clear the exhibition has a clear curatorial strategy and an obvious theme to Rome which does not wander.Yet, when this side of the exhibition (the left) is compared to the right, the left is seen to have a much stronger sense of theme and curatorial direction than the right. The left-hand side of the exhibition has been curated well, with very intelligent links and with a strong focus on the relationships with the works. However, the right-hand side of the exhibition should be praised for the sensible placement of the works due to the media used, for example lots of the works to the right of the exit are grouped by the fact they use body colour, a lot of which used extra white to heighten certain parts. An example of this is seen in Porta Virtutis: Art triumphant over Ignorance and Calumny by Federico Zuccari, however when one looks closer it can be seen that the spelling of this type of media has not been kept consistent in its labelling. For instance A rider on horseback and Figures from a triumphal procession have the media spelt as one word ‘bodycolour’, whereas Porta Virtutis spells it in two words. This is a critical curatorial error, firstly this stops the flow of the otherwise well written labels and presents a spelling mistake. However, despite this mishap, the Drawings in Rome exhibition is consistent in how close the viewer can get to the artworks (around 35cm from barrier to glass) and, when analysing the exhibition as a whole, this is by far one of the main successes of the exhibition.

The 33 drawings are enclosed in permanent display casing which is attached to the gallery’s concrete walls. The paper works are attached to a grey felt board which creates a pleasing contrast with the works on tinted white or coloured paper. The cabinets are attached to the gallery’s white concrete wall which removes distraction from any works placed on it. Indeed, the white and then grey backing is successful, however the fact that the grey backing is textured, almost like felt, is a little distracting. Plain mount card would have worked perfectly fine attached to the works with linen tape. However, this can be forgiven thanks to the simple gallery flow and the planned display cabinet symmetry, providing the exhibition with a neat and effective sense of structure.

Arguably, one of the most sophisticated studies of the entire collection is the Design for a wall decoration, a beautiful and intricate architectural study drawn for the Pantheon and inspired by decorations in Domus Aurea. Yet, perhaps this piece isn’t the most successful in summing up the exhibition as a whole. The marketing team would have had a tough decision in choosing which image would best advertise ‘Drawing in Rome’. Nude youth seated on a pedestal, seen from the back by Giovanni Bagliona, is the chosen ‘poster’ image to advertise the exhibition. Described in its labelling as a “typical academic study”, Bagliona’s piece encompasses all that it is to be an artist in Rome at this time. Showing skill, yet still appearing simplistic in form, the poster image draws the audience in and is a successful choice of an advertisement image. Although other works such as pieces with strong bodycolour and white highlighting would have been bolder and more contrasting in design, Bagliona’s piece is better at explaining the theme of the exhibition in one image.

Ultimately, it is fair to say that all of the chosen 33 works do link very well to the overall theme of ‘Drawings in Rome’. The exhibition displays extremely fine and delicate work all on paper, works that vividly capture moments of Roman antiquity through architecture or beautiful studies of the human form. Theme continuity is strong as a collective whole, but the placing of works on the right-hand side of the exhibition and the fundamental labelling error are all elements which need to be readdressed. Despite this however, the simplistic flow and satisfying symmetry of the exhibition help to create a suitable atmosphere for the exhibition, an exhibition which is a hidden gem in the city of Oxford. ‘Drawing in Rome’ will be running until the 22nd of December, don’t miss out!

[1] Adrian George, The Curator’s Handbook (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 154.

[2], accessed on 5 October 2017