WHITTIER — Within a circle of Minneapolis Institute of Arts curators, it is affectionately referred to as “our Mona Lisa.”
The work in question is a drawing, not a painting, made in 1910 by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. It’s just one of the many surprises to be found in “Marks of Genius,” an astonishing sampling of more than 100 rarely seen drawings from the museum’s collection.
Done in crayon, chalk and tempera paint on a sheet of plain brown wrapping paper, “Standing Girl” depicts a beautiful young woman, her elongated form only half-covered by a plaid blanket. With her head turned from the viewer, she seems innocent, almost bashful, an impression contradicted by the way Schiele draws her hands; the skeletal fingers gripping the blanket are clenched and claw-like.
The exhibition’s organizer, Rachel McGarry, an associate curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings, said it turned heads when it was wheeled into the gallery.
“Everybody stops in their tracks to look at this drawing,” McGarry said.
It isn’t just the girl — possibly the artist's teenage sister — or even the weird psychology of the piece. It’s the way Schiele traces along her neck, over the bump of her collarbone and down her arm in one sinuous line, a naked display of artistic virtuosity.
“In a drawing like this, there’s nowhere to hide,” McGarry said. “If you don’t know how to draw the human form, you can’t draw like this.”
As she writes in the exhibition catalogue, drawing is both the simplest and the most difficult art. Everyone draws, and because of that we classroom and cubicle doodlers marvel at real drawing.
And what a lot there is to see here: works on paper from Edgar Degas, Jean-Francois Millet, Amedeo Modigliani, Georgie O'Keeffe and Philip Guston, to name just a few. The selections span nearly 600 years of art history, reaching as far back as two 15th-century choir book pages illuminated with paint and gold foil.
The most recent piece is an unorthodox 2008 self-portrait by the Baltimore artist Mequitta Ahuja. Ahuja's serene face floats like a crescent moon at the top of the sheet, trailing thick coils of dreadlocks drawn in black crayon.
“This is the cream of our collection,” said McGarry, who described the exhibition as “the most significant group of drawings we’ve shown in the galleries.”
The collection has expanded by 20 percent since the arrival of current museum Director and President Kaywin Feldman in 2008, and now numbers more than 2,600 drawings. But we rarely see them.
Works on paper are especially delicate and can fade or discolor when exposed to light, so drawings are only occasionally — and briefly — put on public view. Then it's back into dark storage (although not, in this case, until after a three-city tour).
These drawings were, in many cases, not intended as finished works of art, but as studies for paintings or sculpture. Fundamental to the visual arts, drawing has always been a way for visual thinkers to test out ideas and form an understanding of the world around them.
When we see the Italian painter Pietro Fancelli fussing with his circa 1800 version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth — adjusting the angle of Eurydice's head and redrawing Orpheus in the margin — we get a glimpse into the artistic process. Fancelli was planning a painting, and after working out the composition in pen and ink he turned the paper over and used the backside for a separate study.
Then there’s Eugene Delacroix’s chalk study of a prone and watchful tiger, an image that shows up in later lithographs and paintings. Otto Dix may have sketched a Pablo Picasso bronze sculpture to better understand the Spanish artist’s version of Cubism, a movement that influenced Dix’s paintings and illustrations.
Adolphe Appian’s 1868 charcoal sketch of the Valromey Valley near his home in Lyon, France, is a knockout, eclipsing a print he later made of the same scene that’s reproduced in the show’s catalogue. Appian gets an incredible range of gradations out of the charcoal, from the hazy sky surrounding the autumn sun to the inky shadows on the valley floor.
The later examples in the show are less often a means to an artistic end. The abstract seascape in Lee Bontecou’s untitled pastel-on-canvas piece is drawing for drawing’s sake, and the powdery texture of the medium seems perfectly suited to describing the mist rising off a churning ocean.
If you’re feeling inspired (and not intimidated) after all of that, stop in the drawing studio at the end of the exhibition to sketch from plaster models. And if that studio feels familiar, it’s because the Walker Art Center set up a similar space for its recent exhibition of Edward Hopper drawings.
More déjà vu: the looping videos of artists in the act of drawing, also a feature of the institute’s spring Matisse exhibition. This time, we see Picasso conjure up a few flowers with a black marker, then turn them into a tropical fish and, finally, transmogrify the fish into a rooster.
We see how the trick works, but the drawing is no less magical.
Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings
WHEN: Through Sept. 21
WHERE: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S.
INFO: artsmia.org, 870-3000
"Standing Girl," by Egon Schiele. Submitted image