When the chance to see a large collection of Raphael’s sketches in my hometown, I knew I couldn’t let it pass without stopping to see it this summer. This was a once-in-a-time opportunity to see the drawings of a master from the Renaissance period, almost 500 years ago. Plus, it was my birthday that week, so it seemed a fitting way to start a week off, celebrating by seeing some art with my friend.
The exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford, was an extraordinary collection of Raphael’s planning work, and has been a very sought-after show. It was advised to book, as a collection of this scale hasn’t been put together since 1983. A lot of the pictures were on loan from Vienna, as well as other UK and international collections (even from her Royal majesty).
Raphael had a brief yet brilliant career, producing a great array of painting and architecture, yet dying at only 37. His work is known best for the composition and the purity of form, his most famous work of art being The School of Athens, held in the Vatican Palace. He was heavily influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and himself included completed the trio of masters from the high renaissance period.
I love nosing through a sketchbook, the intimacy of seeing how the art and brain develop, it is a little like reading someone’s dairy. That’s what this exhibition felt like, and despite the room being packed full of viewers, I couldn’t help but feel like I was somehow in Raphael’s own personal space. The marks that he’d made on the papers that lay before me, seemed to really show what he was seeing in his mind’s eye. The stroke of the charcoal, the directions of the lines, seemed to emphasize different movements and feelings within the viewer. The way that he really built up some areas of the paper, yet left other parts barely touched really created contrast. It’s in this collection that he worked out how to create his well-known pieces. These pieces of paper tell a timeline of thought from idea to masterpiece.
There was a strong theme of muscular men throughout the exhibition, and a phrase noted from many of the cards, ‘heroic male nudity’, really tells the truth. These godlike figures, perfect examples of the male form, were quite the opposite of the women, often clothed, and a lot softer. The drapes in the fabric, mainly on the women, were luxurious and inviting to the touch. One thing that stuck out for me was Raphael managed to contrast so much of his work, allowing play within the application of the medium on to paper. He also used lines and contrast to pull the viewer into his sketches, or simply movements to gesture texture or fabric, even in some of his really quick charcoal marks.
I was quite honestly was blown away by this exhibition, his sketch work creating more emotion in me than most other classic exhibitions I’d seen, nor any traditional painting. One piece in particular really stayed with me, which I later found out is regarded as one of the best drawings ever created, ‘The heads and hands of two apostles’ c.1519-1520. There is such a contrast between the textures, the lights and shadows, even the directions of the charcoal on the paper. It certainly left me wanting to reach out and touch the elder’s beard. I walked away wanting to sketch more, to put pencil marks on paper, and that is a sign of a good exhibition to me.