Pushing paper contemporary drawing from 1970 to now @ the British Museum

‘Learn to draw, learn to see.’
(Established artist Eugène Boudin to the up-and-coming young Monet)

A travelling show

The British Museum houses the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world, and houses approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

Of these 50,000 drawings, some 1,500 are by contemporary or modern artists. From this 1,500, the museum has worked with curators from other galleries around the country to make a selection of 56 drawings for this exhibition, which:

  1. highlight the range and diversity of contemporary drawings
  2. are designed to show how the entire concept of ‘drawing’ has been subjected to radical experiments and redefinitions during this key period, 1970 to the present

The idea is that after a couple of months on display in London, the exhibition will travel to the partner museums around the country, which will add works from their own collections to the display, thus creating a unique combination at each venue.

You can see how this will a) make the works accessible to audiences round the country and b) create a network of curators who are interested and informed about drawings, which could lead to who knows what consequences in the future.

What is a drawing?

Here’s one of the first works you encounter, Untitled by Grayson Perry, featuring an early outing by his transvestite alter-ego, Clare (note what seems to be a dog’s tail coming out the back of her skirt). So far, so gender-bending.

What’s really going on here, though, is the extreme stress Perry is applying to the concept of the ‘drawing’. It clearly contains elements of collage, with stereotypical photos from magazines tacked onto it, plus the diagonal colour washes and diagonal bands of glitter. Is it a drawing at all?

Untitled (1984) by Grayson Perry © The Trustees of the British Museum

That is the question which echoes through the rest of the show. Some works are old-style figurative depictions of some real object in the world, for example this attractive portrait by Jan Vanriet (although I was a little puzzled whether this was a drawing or a watercolour. Is it a drawing which has been watercoloured? Is that still a drawing?)

Ruchla by Jan Vanriet (2011) © The Trustees of the British Museum

It turns out to be one of a series developed from portrait photos of the Jews deported from one particular location in Belgium to concentration camps where they were all murdered. Kind of changes your attitude to the image, doesn’t it?

Drawing also contains the genre of satire or caricature or political cartoon, here represented by Philip Guston‘s unforgiving image of American president Richard Nixon, whose face seems to have turned into a penis and scrotum. To his left what I initially thought was his body is in fact a caricature of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was addicted to playing golf, hence the clutter of golf clubs and balls. And the crab-like glasses on the right reference Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger.

Untitled by Philip Guston (1971) © The Trustees of the British Museum

(This caricature is a reminder to younger viewers that there’s nothing new about Donald Trump: America has a long, long, long track record of scumbag, murdering, lying presidents. Why, then, do the arbiters of culture give America so much weight and respect?)

And then there are what you could call artistic ‘deformations’ of real objects, specifically the human body, subjected to stylisation, morphing into abstract patterns, as in this drawing by Gwen Hardie, the tiggerish striping of the torso counterpointed by the stylisation of what are presumably female sex organs, the leaning-back posture a cross between a cave painting and a Henry Moore sculpture. Gwen is a woman artist ‘who has a longstanding preoccupation with the body and its perception’.

Untitled (1962) by Gwen Hardie © The Trustees of the British Museum

A striking ‘deformation of the actual’ is this work by Hew Locke, a British artist of Guyanese descent. According to the wall label, Locke takes the view that the Queen has been party to countless secrets during her record-breaking reign, and that this nightmarish image captures the corroding and corrupting effect all these secrets and lies have had on her, by the look of it, transforming her face into a mask of eyes against a backdrop of scores of little wiggly lime-green skulls. The image ‘asks us to question the Queen as a symbol of nationhood , as well as the power and history which she embodies.’

Sovereign 3 by Hew Locke (2005) © The Trustees of the British Museum

For those of us who were around during the punk Summer of Hate of 1977 – 42 years ago – this is nothing new. Taking the piss out of the Queen is an extremely old activity, in fact it made me feel quite nostalgic.

Sex Pistols album cover (1977)

According to the curators, the period from 1970 to the present saw a resurgence of interest in drawing. Previously it had mostly been seen as a format in which you practiced life studies, or prepared for work in a more demanding medium such as painting. The 1960s opened the box on this (as on so many other genres and practices) and freed up artists to be as playful and experimental as they could imagine. Thus:

Drawings in the exhibition encroach on territories traditionally associated with mediums including sculpture, land art and even performance.

‘Drawing’ spills out all over the place.

Five themes

The exhibition groups the works into five themes, ‘examining’:

  • Identity
  • Place and Space
  • Time and Memory
  • Power and Protest
  • Systems and Process

Personally, I felt these ‘themes’ rather limited and directed and forced your responses to works which often had nothing at all in common, and could each have stood by themselves. Except for the last one, that is: because a lot of the works genuinely are interested in systems and processes.

For example, there’s a yellow square by Sol LeWitt which is just one of countless of works the American artist generated from algorithms, from sets of rules about geometry, shapes and colours, which he created and then followed through to produce thousands of variations.

There’s a drawing of the tiles on a floor by Rachel Whiteread which comes with quite an extensive label explaining that a) she has always been interested in floors which are the most overlooked parts of a room or building and b) that it’s a heavily painted drawing, done in thick gouache onto graph paper, which points forward, or hints at, the vast casts of rooms and entire buildings which she was soon to create.

There’s a work by Fiona Robinson which juxtaposes two sets of vibrating lines which she created while listening to the music of John Cage, and then of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Related to these, insofar as it’s black and white and made of abstract patterns, is this charming drawing by Richard Deacon.

Some Interference 14.01.06 (2006) by Richard Deacon © The Trustees of the British Museum

I found a lot of these ‘abstract’ works a lot more appealing than many of the rather obvious ‘messages’ in the ‘Power and Protest’ section. But maybe you’d prefer the latter. Different strokes. The whole point is, the exhibition has been designed to showcase the immense variety of images, formats and materials which can go into the making of ‘a drawing’.

The artists

What is a drawing? Well, this exhibition presents an impressive roll call of major contemporary artists all giving answers to that question, including:

  • Edward Allington
  • Phyllida Barlow
  • Louise Bourgeois
  • Stuart Brisley
  • Pablo Bronstein
  • Glenn Brown
  • Jonathan Callan
  • Judy Chicago
  • Adel Daoud
  • Richard Deacon
  • Tacita Dean
  • Michael Ditchburn
  • Peter Doig
  • Tracey Emin
  • Ellen Gallagher
  • Philip Guston
  • Maggi Hambling
  • Richard Hamilton
  • Gwen Hardie
  • Claude Heath
  • David Hockney
  • Andrzej Jackowski
  • Anish Kapoor
  • Anselm Kiefer
  • Minjung Kim
  • Marcia Kure
  • Micah Lexier
  • Liliane Lijn
  • Hew Locke
  • Nja Mahdaoui
  • Bahman Mohassess
  • David Nash
  • Cornelia Parker
  • Seb Patane
  • A R Penck
  • Grayson Perry
  • Frank Pudney
  • Imran Qureshi
  • Gerhard Richter
  • Fiona Robinson
  • Hamid Sulaiman
  • Jan Vanriet
  • Hajra Waheed
  • Rachel Whiteread
  • Stephen Willats

Apart from anything else, it’s a fascinating cross-section of the artistic practices and concerns of some of the most important artists of the last 50 years.

Mountain by Minjung Kim (2009) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pushing Paper is in room 90, which is right at the back of the British Museum and up several flights of stairs, in the Drawings and Print Department. It is varied and interesting and thought-provoking, and it is FREE.

Related links

  • Pushing Paper continues at the British Museum until 12 January 2020

Other British Museum exhibitions

Richard Deacon @ Tate Britain

Modern sculptures don’t just present the object itself in three dimensions, changing shape and perspective and emotional resonance as you walk around it; the works – whether they be curved and shapely or angular and sharp – also embroil the air around them, ramifying into the surrounding space, revealing potential angles and sightlines off in all directions, creating new shapes in the emptiness.

Although a number of other category systems suggest themselves, for me the works on display in this retrospective of Richard Deacon’s 40-year career could be easily divided into ones which opened up the surrounding space, creating a meta-sculpture beyond the sculpture, sculpting the emptiness – and ones which seemed tight, costive, self-contained and limiting. As my adjectives suggest, I preferred the former and didn’t like the latter.

Deacon has experimented widely with different materials – wood, metal, linoleum and fabrics. His pieces are big. One piece can easily fill a room. Three can just about be squeezed in.

The works

Untitled #1 (1977) (on the left in this photo) A trapezoid shape made from wooden fence posts to create a hollow box. In its use of a simple material – wood posts – and the simplicity of shape it reminded me of New York minimalism and Arte Povera, both of which have a room at Tate Modern.

Blind, Deaf and Dumb A (1985) The highlight of room two, a thirty foot long loop of wood laminated together to create a lovely long, low playful loop of wood, subtly joined and reinforced with metal staples. I wanted to jump through the loops. I wanted to run along it running my hands over the shapes and then flying off into the air.

By contrast Lock (1990) uses the same idea of strips of laminated wood, but here it has become rather baroque, the sculpture itself more complicated as it is now two pieces, looking rather like giant dog muzzles or horse bridles, which have become interlocked in an intricate way. To me this lacked all the freedom and generosity of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb. Also the clean Habitat/Ikea feel of the naked wood in the former piece has been overlaid with heavy metal plating lining the interior surfaces. Where Blind and Deaf felt free and liberated, this felt plated, locked down. A giant chastity belt.

Similarly Struck Dumb (1988) looked like an enormous metal curled-up woodlouse. I wanted to bang some drumsticks on it to make it creative, soft, emanate some life. Instead it squatted like an enormous metal blister lopsiding the room.

Big and entirely made out of metal was Mammoth (1989). Another visitor told me he thought it looked like a whale, with a big plashing tail at the back. I thought it looked like a tortured ventilation shaft, and ventilation shaft which had been taken for a made spin.

Room 4 was devoted to the Art For Other People series of smaller works designed to be bought and installed in a domestic setting. According to RD’s website there are currently 46 of these of which about eight were on display. Combinations of lino and stone, fabric and metal, wood and leather, quirky one-off creations, fabrications, which prompt and puzzle. The most obvious question is, Which of the eight here would you have in your house? Reluctantly, I think, none.

After 1998 is the poster boy of the show, a big room-filling sculpture that is basically a wooden flume that curves round in a long flowing loop, like a giant snake. Wood is good. It feels like the most accessible material on show. The piece has a primal, phallic, serpentine, animal power. Organic metaphors flood the mind as the shape itself dominates the space and creates sparks, offshoots, further invisible slinkinesses ramifying out in all directions.

Which was the exact opposite of Waiting For The Rain (2002), a sort of giant flint made from terracotta. Though the material ought to be warm and organic, the actual shape and its presence were cold, costive, constipated, unflowing, uptight.

The same was true, only more so, of Tropic (2007), an angular chunk of glazed ceramic which looked like a bit of set design from Star Trek. I usually like uncomfortable angular art, but I found something about the dripping dark glazed colours and the geometric shapes profoundly unsympa, unsettling, upsetting.

And even when the looping tumbling theme from earlier works was continued in something like Out Of Order (2003) – a kind of giant wood shaving gone mad – for me it lacked the warm smiling mood of the earlier works.


I wish there had been more. I’d have liked to have seen more pieces in the hope that I’d have felt positively and warmly about more of them. As it was, the warmth and openness of the large, expansive wood pieces was a bit too swamped by the cold, heartless baroque of the more metal and over-elaborate pieces.

Fascinating and thought-provoking show.

Related links

More Tate Britain reviews

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