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Intricate visions

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly every painting gestates through paper and line.

“The Virgin and Christ Child with a Cat,” 1478-81 by Leonardo da Vinci. Pen and brown ink over stylus underdrawing. (SOURCE: Collection Of The British Museum)

Opening at Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art on Saturday, May 27, “Lines of Thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to Now” from the British Museum showcases those lines of exploration and composition across five centuries. Its 70 works range from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to sketches by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Mondrian, Picasso, Cézanne and David Hockney.

The parallels abound across the ages.

In his drawing for the Sistine Chapel’s “The Last Judgment,” Michelangelo brainstorms ideas echoed by British modern artist Richard Hamilton’s alternative visions for James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Cézanne’s investigation into a sculpture of Cupid mirrors that of the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer as he establishes the pose for Adam in his 1504 engraving “Adam and Eve.”

Drawing reigns as the key conceptual tool in every stage of the artistic process. We have all drawn, at least from the time we could hold a crayon. Virginia Woolf once said drawing captures the likeness of a thought; making visible ideas and changes often eliminated from finished works.

“Tree Study,” Piet Mondrian.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin and Christ Child with a Cat,” 1478-81, reveals the artist changing the placement of the figure of Mary in a delicate ink wash.

Da Vinci initially positioned the figure’s head bowed over her child. But a second, darker rendering reveals him moving her face so that it mirrors the Christ child’s as he holds the cat. The change perfectly balances the composition.

“You get to see Leonardo making decisions,” chief museum curator Merry Scully said. “As the decision becomes firm, it becomes much darker. It’s very tender.”

“Interior of a Circular Building,” Giovanni Piranesi.

A reverse drawing on the back shows the artist testing the composition against the light to see if it works in reverse.

Rembrant’s “A Clump of Trees in a Fenced Enclosure,” c. 1645, showcases highly textured paper with black chalk. You can almost feel the wind blowing through the leaves. The artist most likely completed the image outdoors, Scully said.

“You see him trying to evoke the moment,'” she added.

The Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian produced a very different kind of tree in his “Tree Study.”

“Tortoise and a View of a Walled, Coastal Town” by Melchior Lorck. (SOURCE: Collection Of The British Museum)

“Trees have been used by Georgia O’Keeffe, Judy Chicago and Charles Gaines,” Scully said. “So many people have used trees as subject matter, giving them different meaning. You still get a sense of the central support, but you can see Mondrian’s interest in simplification. It’s far more geometric.”

Melchior Lorck’s 1555 life-like drawing of a tortoise seemingly floating over a coastal city presages Surrealism by nearly 400 years. But at the time paper was precious, and the artist was likely combining two drawings on a single green tinted sheet, Scully said. Lorck used white chalk to highlight the texture of the shell.

Giovanni Piranesi’s”Interior of a Circular Building,” c. 1750-60, reveals the artist’s passion for architecture in quill and ink. Its expressive, diagonal lines evoke movement and shadow as the ink soaks into the paper.

The exhibition also features a preliminary drawing for Picasso’s incendiary masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” (1916). The final painting of five nude prostitutes, their faces distorted by African masks, inspired both outrage and awe. In the drawing, a sketch of a figure stands next to a more detailed image of the face.

“You have a study within a study,” Scully said.

The exhibition includes a specified drawing area, complete with small models for inspired visitors, as well as a smaller, separate showing of drawings from New Mexico artists such as Gustave Baumann, Judy Chicago, Frederick Hammersley and Fritz Scholder, as well as Zozobra founder Will Shuster’s sketchbooks.