The National Gallery of Art has two collections: one is the rich patrimony of paintings, sculptures and furniture on permanent view in its halls for all to admire.
The other is generally referred to as “works on paper,” the 120,000 or so drawings, prints and watercolors coddled in cabinets to prevent them being damaged by strong light.
Works from this protected group ranging from 11th century works to Picasso engravings to contemporary creations can generally be viewed on request by individuals or groups, but the National Gallery also regularly mounts exhibitions focusing on this dimension of its formidable inventory.
This week the gallery opened two such shows, one designed to show off a relatively new area of acquisitions, and the other to pay tribute to an important patron whose donation and bequest included hundreds of works on paper.
Senior curator Andrew Robinson says the 70 works by 52 artists featured in “From Neo-Classicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings answer the question, “What happened between Tiepolo and Modigliani?”
The exhibition, in effect, covers (or perhaps uncovers) 125 years of “missing” Italian art. Missing in the sense that, while 19th century and early 20th century France illuminated the art world with the genius of successive artistic movements, there was less cohesion among artists in Italy, reflecting the situation in their own country, which until the 1860s was a collection of separate states.
This, it’s been suggested, is one reason why the Italian artists of the period (and of this exhibition) are well known in Italy but hardly outside it. It wasn’t until the emergence of, among others, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) that Italian artists regained international stature.
The historical context was not helpful either. The Italians first had to put up with the Napoleonic occupation, then the Austrians, and then live through an arduous unification into one nation — known in Italy as the Risorgimento — in which many artists fought in the army of Italian liberator Garibaldi.
Recognizing its importance and richness, the National Gallery has begun to build a collection of this period’s art works, and such is their rarity that the gallery says it has become the largest and finest collection in the United States.
In many ways the exhibition is a pleasant process of discovery.
A few of the showcased artists are familiar names: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), the master engraver whose 1921 “Still Life of Basket and Bread” is an early example of his depiction of everyday items, including bottles, pots and boxes in his singular paintings, and Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908), one of the leaders of the Macchiaioli group of painters, with macchie — splashes and spots — as their stylistic trademark, and for this reason often compared with the French impressionists.
Fattori’s etching “Woman of the Gabbro,” finished in 1887, shows a full-length image of a country woman in the Tuscan town of Il Gabbro, seen from the back, as are many of the artist’s human figures.
But other names and works in the show will be new to many visitors: Luigi Sabatelli (1772-1850), whose neoclassical compositions were inspired by works of the past; landscapist Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905), one of Queen Victoria’s favorite painters, whose dazzling watercolor “A Summer Evening at the Lago Maggiore” represents the late Romantics in the group on display; and the futurist Carlo Carra (1861-1966), whose intricate collage “Graphic Rhythm with Airplane” commemorates French pilot Louis Bleriot’s solo flight across the English Channel in 1909.
The show awakens interest in seeing paintings by the group, first shown collectively in this country in Los Angeles in 1968. There are few such works in the permanent collections of U.S. institutions, and that goes for the National Gallery. But in 2013, an exhibition of paintings Macchiaioli artists in Paris (mostly loaned from Italy) was something of a revelation, and the National Gallery might consider a similar show in the not too distant future.
The other exhibition is closer to home in every sense: “Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection” consists of 37 mostly abstract prints, drawings and watercolors that “exemplify American art as it advanced from 1904 to 1976,” according to the National Gallery press release.
The show celebrates its donors, Washington residents Ruth Cole Kainen and Jacob Kainen — the latter a transplanted New York artist who in the 1940s became curator of the division of graphic arts at what is now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, his wife a collector and patron of the arts in her own right and longtime National Gallery trustee.
Altogether, the couple donated numerous European and American works, principally prints and drawings, “enriching the National Gallery of Art’s holdings across a range of schools,” the gallery stated. But the exhibition is drawn from Cole Kainen’s posthumous 2012 bequest of 781 works, including some by well known artists and others not so well known.
Thus the exhibition includes one of Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) finest drip paintings on paper from 1951, and two of abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning’s (1904-1997) lithographs — one untitled painted on the double page spread of The New York Times, the other “Landscape at Stanton Street.”
But also included are two lithographs by modernist Stuart Davis (1892-1964) in his very personal abstract language, but without the vivid colors of his paintings, reminiscent of Picasso, and a fluent black-and-white drawing by David Smith (1906-1965).
WHAT: “From Neoclassicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings, 1800—1925”; “Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection”
WHERE: The National Gallery of Art, Third and Ninth streets on Constitution Avenue NW, Washington D.C., 202/737-4215, NGA.gov
WHEN: Now through Feb. 1