'Genius' of drawing at MIA

MARY ABBE | Updated 7/20/2014

MIA unveils 100 master drawings spanning 500 years.

Rachel McGarry in front of Mequitta Ahuja's "Tress IV."
Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Drawing remains the skill by which artistic talent is measured.

Starting Sunday, Minneapolis Institute of Arts visitors can see how 100 different artists have drawn over the past 500 years, and then step into the museum’s own studio and try their hand at sketching a still life, the human figure, or whatever springs to mind.

The DIY room is the playful wrap-up to “Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings,” an important show of impressively varied drawings, watercolors and pastels from the museum’s collection. The exhibit anticipates the museum’s 100th birthday next year.

Don’t worry, though. “Genius” is designed to show off the museum’s treasures, not to put visitors on the spot. Artists will be in the studio from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday to demonstrate and talk about their work, but picking up a pencil is optional. The exhibition also includes remarkable pieces by European and American talent, including Watteau, Boucher, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Ingres, Millet, Degas, Magritte, Turner, Van Gogh, Warhol and more.

Of the 87,000 objects in the museum’s collection, about 40,000 are works on paper. Of those, just 2,600 are drawings, while the rest are prints, artists books or other constructions. Though seldom as pricey as paintings, drawings are rare and can be costly because they’re so fragile. Still, the MIA has added, through gifts and purchase, more than 400 drawings in the past five years, including 35 in this show. They range from a notebook-sized 1520 “Head of a Bearded Saint” by G.A. Sogliani to “Tress IV,” an 8-foot-tall drawing of dreadlocks cascading from the head of a beautiful black woman. The latter was sketched in 2008 by Mequitta Ahuja, a Baltimore artist who will discuss her work on Aug. 7.

Drawing shows can seem fussy because lights have to be kept low to prevent fading, older pieces are typically small because paper was scarce and expensive, and flocks of potentially soporific angels, saints, virgins, martyrs and Greco-Roman deities flap about in things done before 1700.

“Genius” avoids the preciousness of all that by arranging art of various sizes into broad themes that mix centuries, countries, styles and subjects. So the first gallery, “Artist as Observer,” includes Egon Schiele’s stunning 4-foot-tall sketch from 1910 of an anorexic “Standing Girl” as well as Sogliani’s 1520 saint’s head. There’s a pretty 1930 vase of flowers by Édouard Vuillard, an explosive 1908 self-portrait by Lovis Corinth, an emotive 1817 “Head of a Mustachioed Man,” by A.L. Girodet-Trioson, a 1760 “Standing Male Nude” by N.B. Lépicié, and a 1923 sketch of a house by Edward Hopper. That sample alone spans five centuries of artists from Austria, Italy, France, Germany and the United States.

Variety continues under such fluid themes as abstraction, sense of place and storytelling. Place images range from a vibrantly blue Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor of the Maine coast, to an 1885 Winslow Homer watercolor of conch divers on a tropical sea, and Domenico Tiepolo’s 1791 satirical jab at monastic decadence.

There are riveting masterpieces throughout. Adolphe Appian’s light shimmering on the Valromey Valley is painterly in its finish, as is J.F. Lewis’ exquisitely lit interpretation of another artist, Murillo, at work in Seville. Nearly 8 feet wide, Jim Dine’s 1988 watercolor “San Marco With Meissen Figure and the Buddha” is a stunning fusion of multicultural images inspired by architecture, porcelain and sculpture.

And there are surprises. Famous for his primary-color abstractions, Piet Mondrian is represented by a delicate watercolor of a Dutch farmstead. Even war gets unexpected treatment in George Grosz’s “Street Fight in Vienna,” a soft-focus abstraction that renders in surprising detail a bloody 1934 urban battle.