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Otto Dix, “Old Woman” (c. 1923), Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection (© 2014 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

CHICAGO — In a 2004 address to London’s Royal Academy, critic Robert Hughes said that drawing “satisfies the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about.” An exhibition of drawings currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago exemplifies Hughes’s statement, by surveying the ways in which mainly European artists over several centuries explored the world around them through the act of making expressive marks on paper.

Pierre-Paul Proudhon “Female Nude” (c. 1800), black and white chalk on blue paper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Titled The Thrill of the Chase, the show contains 97 drawings, all of them part of a massive bequest to the museum in 2013 consisting of over 700 works on paper (plus 150 ceramics). A Massachussetts collector named Dorothy Braude Edinburg has been working with curators at the Institute for more than 20 years on the gift, one of the biggest in the museum’s history. Much of that time was spent selecting works on paper that would one day become part of the collection and then establishing their provenance and authenticity — hence the “chase” in the title of the show.

There are Old Master ink drawings by Murillo and Jacob Jordaens depicting Biblical scenes. There are several landscape sketches by Ruisdael and Gainsborough. Many of these are examples of the classically trained artist either demonstrating his skill for a prospective patron or making preliminary studies for paintings. But there are dozens of drawings from the 19th and 20th centuries, too, that show varied ways of looking at a subject as well as an interest in the kinds of marks that can be used to represent it. A small drawing by Monet, “Grainstacks,” creates a similar effect to his paintings of haystacks by using different pressures of the chalk to suggest solid shapes wrapped in a cocoon of light.

Edgar Degas, “The Bath” (c. 1883), pastel and charcoal on paper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The different ways in which artists have drawn the naked female form can be seen in a chalk drawing by Proudhon and a pastel drawing by Degas. The figure in Proudhon’s piece is depicted with astonishing exactness, but she sits in an undefined space — there is a sense that we could almost be looking at a marble statue. In Degas’s drawing, meanwhile, the woman is seen from behind as she leans over a bathtub positioned in the corner of a room. The room is depicted in quick marks; the woman, in contrast to the room, is drawn in monochrome, and while we can’t see her face, we feel that the model is a real person in a realized space. Unlike the Proudhon drawing, which is beautiful but slightly remote, we feel pressed in close to the intimate moment of Degas’s model.

When we get to the grotesque cartoons of Georg Grosz, the wild ink drawings of Otto Dix, and the combination of observation and decoration in drawings by Picasso and Matisse, it might seem that we are a long way from the world of the 17th-century masters. The pencils and inks move more quickly, there is a greater feeling of spontaneity, less concern for “finish.” But all of the drawings in this exhibition, whether they were made in 1620 or 1920, convey the sense of an artist looking at something — either out there in the world or in the mind — and searching for the mark that will, to adapt a phrase of John Ruskin’s, “dirty the paper delicately.”

Thrill of the Chase: Drawings for the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago) through June 15.

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