Van Eyck to Mondrian: 300 Years of Collecting in Dresden
On ViewThe Morgan Library & Museum
October 22, 2021 – January 23, 2022
The Morgan Library & Museum has been at 225 Madison Avenue since it was built in 1906. It was originally known as the Pierpont Morgan Library, named after the American financier, banker, industrialist, and philanthropist, J. Pierpont Morgan. In the aftermath of several architectural renovations and additions, the name of this profound scholarly institution would be changed to its current form in 2006, a gesture acknowledging its commitment to both art and literature. Consequently, the historical drawings and other works of visual art that have long been in the family’s care, but not shown publicly on a regular basis, were finally put on an equal footing with the rare book collection—the core of which was purchased by Morgan himself.
The recent exhibition, Van Eyck to Mondrian: 300 Years of Collecting in Dresden, follows in the spirit of this change, although it is drawn from the brilliant depositories of the Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden. These collections are largely focused on drawings produced during the Northern Renaissance and Baroque period, although they also include more recent works. The occasion for this exhibition is to celebrate the origin of the Kupferstich-Kabinett in 1720, when these collections were anointed under the auspices of Augustus II (“the Strong”), Elector of Saxony. One of the 60 major works loaned from this collection for display in New York has become the chief icon of the exhibition: Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of an Older Man (1435–40), a resplendent drawing being shown for the first time in the United States.
Van Eyck is accompanied by a breathtaking study for Rembrandt’s spectacular painting, Abduction of Ganymede. This uniquely abstract and unusual drawing was made by Rembrandt while he was still in his 20s. In it, Zeus is disguised as an eagle abducting the Trojan hero Ganymede to serve as his cup-bearer on Mount Olympus. The nearly spasmodic abstract lines that surround the event are remarkable and clearly ahead of their time, well beyond the concept of drawing as it was known to exist in the 17th Century.
Other drawings borrowed from Dresden and brought together under the curatorial leadership of Stephanie Buck, the Director of Kupferstich-Kabinett, and her New York colleague, Austeja Mackelaite, the Annette and Oscar de la Renta Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints at The Morgan, include not only drawings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but also works from the 19th and 20th centuries, as the title of the exhibition indicates. It is a rare gift to see works by Casper David Friedrich, Francisco Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, Gustav Klimt, Otto Dix, and Piet Mondrian in a context that allows them to converse with works by masters ranging from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Hans Holbein the Younger.
One such drawing would be Piet Mondrian’s Color Design for the Salon of Ida Bienert (Floor Plan/Vertical Plan, Full View) from 1926. Although the commission for this Salon was never actually fulfilled, the drawing (opaque watercolor over graphite pencil) remains as an example of the artist’s application of his concept of Neoplasticism—straight lines, rectangular shapes and primary colors—to three-dimensional space. This work represents the accuracy of hard-edge Modernism by an artist committed to changing the course of drawing in the twentieth century.
The experience of walking through this exhibition is both startling and humbling. The works by these artists, experienced in a process of linear engagement, are evidence of how to understand oneself. One by one, they create a feeling of discovery through lines that connect lightness with the density of the spatial field. Together these drawings congregate as we, the viewers, discover a sense of connection with the internal world of visual experience. In fact, we are confronting a space and time that reveals the epic scope of life. This is a story that belongs to the field of humanist scholarship in general, a realm of thought expressed in exemplary fashion by the art and literary exchanges that come together in institutions such as The Morgan in New York and the Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dresden.