March 15 - May 31, 1990
Curated by Nina Castelli Sundell
THE DRAWINGS OF LEO LlONNI
Leo Lionni's drawings appear timeless, inevitable, yet their subject is time and mutabilityobjects extracted from time, shaped by time, or existing in a hypothetical universe parallel to our own; a universe whose rules are perfectly coherent but just a little strange. For the past twenty years, Lionni's drawings have focused on two subjects: one biological the imaginary plants whose taxonomy is exhaustively described in Parallel Botany, and the other in a sense geologicaldrawings of stones: fields of pebbles, elaborate stone gardens, one or more stones magnified and scrutinized in detail. A subcategory of this genre consists of drawings in which organic or inorganic intrusions modify the field of stones. (In a third groupone is tempted to call it miscellaneousshells or grasses are laid out on the ground or become the ground.) Most of these drawings are metaphorical, dealing with ideas of perfection, isolation, interchangeability of natural forms and artificial structures, change, life and death.
Lionni is a quintessentially 20th-century man. As an adolescent, he showed
his paintings with the Futurists. His innovative work in advertising and
design dominated the look of American print media for three decades, establishing
new standards of sophistication and elegance, indirectly but profoundly
affecting the way we perceive not only specific products but the world
itself. Yet this man, triumphantly at ease in the age of mechanical reproduction,
makes drawings whose meticulous draftsmanship resembles that of Durer:
drawings like those of Renaissance artists or 17th-century botanists absorbed
in the discovery of nature, in love with its endless variety.
He was always interested in natural history. As a child he had a terrarium,
collected shells and pebbles, creating a private world for the frogs and
salamanders he caught in the marshes outside Amsterdam or bought at "Artis"Artis
Magistra Natura, a fascinating store near his school. At Porcignano, the
Tuscan farm house where he has lived for the past 20 years, he is immersed
in a natural setting rich in an astonishing variety of plants, shaped
by thousands of years of human habitation. The relationship between nature
and man is at the core of his work. From a very early age, he was accustomed
to the discipline of drawing. He learned to draw from plaster casts. At
school he recalls a greatly enlarged ivy leaf:
We learned to draw the veins, the contours, the bulges, and to trace the "outs" disappearing into the "ins". We were taught to judge curves and proportions by moving the outstretched thumb up and down the pencil, and when we had carefully outlined the shapes we would crosshatch the shadows, building up the blacks little by little... There was no talk of self expression then, nor of "creativity." We simply learned the craft of drawing and we tried to draw well. The pleasure of performance was a natural, lifelong goal for me.
At the Ryjksmuseum, he drew from casts of classical sculpture, and discovered the "gentle spaces" of Dutch landscape painting, paintings that seemed to him much like his terrariums, "but two dimensional, and with the added mystery of immobility and silence." ("Artis Natura Magistra," Chelsea 44, 1985, p. 10.)
Lionni's drawings are quintessentially, exquisitely handmade. If many of them are about time, they also incorporate time. The slow, laborious process of making them, the exercise of draftsmanship, remain central to the work. "In the struggle and pleasures of making art, the high point of my pleasure is manual performance," he says. (Interview with the author, January 1990)
A series of drawings made in 1981-82, which includes From
Scratch and Artis Magistra Natura II, reveal and celebrate
this process. First the shapes are delicately outlined; then each pebble
is drawn in ...smooth, individual, unique, left to right from top to bottom
so that the artist's hand will not smudge the image. In spite of their
illusionistic precision, the drawings are made from memory. They reproduce
mental images, remembered or imagined with absolute clarity. "I make something
stand still in my imagination and then I just copy it," Lionni has said
. "That's something I've done since I was a child."
Until 1970 most of his work consisted of stylized portraits of imaginary people, reminiscent of the funeral masks of the Fayum or of Byzantine mosaics. Then he began to make portraits of imaginary plants, or rather, hypothetical plants that might exist if the laws of nature were just a little different. The botanical drawings in this exhibition are a part of a series of works including paintings, prints, and a considerable body of cast bronze sculpture, as well as Parallel Botany (1976), an extraordinary book that details the discovery and taxonomy of these purely imaginary organisms. While the plants in most of the earlier drawings in the show also exist as sculpture, the drawings are not studies for the sculpture: they are different images of the same species.
In Lionni's botanica, known elements of terrestrial plants are reshuffled in new configurations and fused with forms that are man-made or could be imagined only by sophisticated 20th-century man. (Portions of some sculptures are cast directly from nature; others include human artifacts such as ball bearings.) For all their strangeness, these plants are essentially friendly. They are surrealist, in the tradition of Ernst and Magritte, but without the menace. Spiritually, they are much closer to Paul Klee or Alexander Calder, two of Lionni's favorite artists. Some of the more anthropomorphic types, like the Seguriae, are vaguely reminiscent of Walt Disney.
Nothing in art is as bizarre as the exotic specimens you
can see in the Botanical Garden, or indeed, as the plants in your own
back yard if you examine them closely. The sense of discovery and the
spirit of wonder that inform Lionni's drawings, as well as their meticulous
execution, resembles 17th- and 18th-century botanical illustration. This
kinship, particularly evident in Sette Foglie, where the leaves
in question are presented frontally, enlarged, as though they were scientific
specimens, with an elegant antique border, becomes even more explicit
in Parallel Botany, a truly erudite book that parodies scholarship
past and present at the same time as it celebrates the romance of discovery
and the delights of classification.
Botanical imagery predominated in Lionni's work throughout
the sevens ies. In the eighties, a new series of works begins: works he
thinks of as "portraits of the earth." Imaginary plants give way to pictures
of stones: fields or piles of pebbles; stone pavement, or individual stones,
smoothed by the action of time or marked with mysterious shapes that could
be fossils, or perhaps carvings. Superficially, these drawings seem more
plausible than Lionni's impossible plants, but they, too, are entirely
imaginary. The most striking are at least as impossible: configurations
of pebbles that would never occur in nature, stone gardens that no amount
of artistry could bring into being. Less whimsical, they seem less surreal
than the botanical drawings, but they are in some ways even more profoundly
"A pebble," says Lionni, "is the outcome of negative growth." Many of his drawings look at decay as a symbol of life. "Nature is imperfectionthat's an idea that fascinates me: the kind of imperfection we strive for in art...the impression of perfection through unbalanced means." These serene, mysterious images are not imitations of nature; they are nature's parallel.