Historically, drawing has been treated as a lesser art form than painting and sculpture, despite its being an indispensable tool in the artistic process. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon didn’t translate fully formed from the painters’ hands to the canvas without first going through planning stages and transformations, and many of the most well-known paintings in art history were first envisioned in graphite, charcoal, pastel, or pen and ink. Picasso, for instance, made hundreds of drawings while working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of which is on view in the exhibition Lines of Thought: Drawing From Michelangelo to Now at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The traveling show of works on paper, opening Friday, May 26,  takes a long look at the techniques and process of drawing. The works were selected from the British Museum’s extensive collection of more than 50 thousand drawings and two million prints.

In da Vinci’s day, certain thematic elements in a painting were acceptable subjects: biblical scenes and figures, the myths of Greece and Rome, and commissioned portraits of the aristocracy among them. But in his drawings, he was free to be more inventive and imaginative. Among the da Vincis in the British Museum is a curious study of the Christ child playing with a cat, one of several such drawings by the artist in the museum’s holdings, which indicates the subject was intriguing enough for him to spend a little time with it. This gets viewers to consider about the kinds of questions we don’t normally ask about history’s most iconic artists. The Virgin and Christ Child With a Cat, made around the same time as the artist’s other cat studies (circa 1478-1481) is a more fully realized composition, but the image, included in the exhibit, shows us his mind at work, considering alternative gestures and poses.

Lines of Thought came out of a program of the Bridget Riley Art Foundation, which introduced more than 500 students to the British Museum’s holdings. “These were fine-art students from art schools around London,” Isabel Seligman, the exhibit curator, told Pasatiempo. “The first part was to bring the students into the study room in the prints and drawings department, and that allowed them to see firsthand the amazing work in our collection. The second strand was the exhibition, which was to make these drawings available to people outside of London.” According to Seligman, historical drawings were not something the students were encouraged to look at during the course of their studies. They were focused more exclusively on 20th-century and contemporary art. “So what was it they found interesting about a Michelangelo?” she asked.  “Usually it was the fact that Michelangelo also used drawing to problem-solve, to find something out, to analyze, to change his mind. It’s an intimate way to look at someone you might otherwise regard as an incredibly canonical, intimidating artist.”

The exhibition is organized by themes such as “Brainstorming” and “Enquiry and Experiment.” The former explores how ideas percolate and proliferate. “As a way of thinking, brainstorming hinges on excess,” writes Seligman in the exhibit catalog. “A profusion of ideas is thrown down onto the page, most of which will be discarded, enabling a kind of thinking through doing.” The frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, for example, are among the most recognizable in history, but less seen are the figure studies for the frescoes in which Michelangelo explored many variations, densely covering paper with his sketches but retaining a lot of his original ideas from those sketches in the final work. The exhibition includes Michelangelo’s Studies for the “Last Judgment” (1534), a scene on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The studies were rendered in black chalk. “When you look at something like the Sistine Chapel, one of the crowning achievements of Western art, it can be easy to forget that so many drawings like the one we’re exhibiting lay behind its creation, and it was very flexible and malleable in his imagination at that time,” Seligman said.

The exhibit goes back further than Michelangelo in at least one instance: a page depicting the final judgment scene in the Egyptian Book of the Dead from circa 940 BC. In the catalog, Seligman compares this ancient drawing with British performance artist Michael Landy’s diagram for Break Down, a preparatory drawing for a performance piece from 2000. She writes that these works show the continuities of drawing over time. “It’s not about a drawing being influential, but about the process of drawing being influential,” she said. Landy’s Break Down, like the Book of the Dead, deals with the subjects of death, purification, and renewal which, in itself, is a fine enough reason to pair them. Beyond that, the Book of the Dead’s anonymous scribe and Landy both made visible adjustments and modifications to their work, showing drawing’s role as a medium for planning out a composition. 

The juxtapositions in the exhibit as well as the catalog draw comparisons and establish affinities between the art of the Baroque, the modern, the contemporary, and a host of other periods. The “Enquiry and Experiment” section of the exhibit, for example, groups Rembrandt’s Studies of Women and Children (circa 1635-1637) with Jay DeFeo’s Figure I (from the Tripod series) from 1976, Paul Cézanne’s Study of a Plaster Cupid (circa 1890), and works by Albrecht Dürer, Pablo Picasso, and David Hockney. 

It’s not that all these drawings are related in obvious ways. But all of the artists engage in observational study, experimentation, or otherwise test the boundaries of their medium. Cézanne, for example, could reduce a composition to what he felt were its essentials, still working from direct observation but in a way that seems to mimic how the eye sees, including the information that gets left out while looking. “There’s that wonderful Cézanne drawing where parts of the cupid almost seem unfinished, although, knowing the number of paintings he made from this drawing, you know it’s not unfinished, and he has chosen to leave particular sections out to focus the gaze and create a more dynamic composition,” Seligman said. “That style and process of looking, that fragmentary approach where what you have on the paper directs your eye around and is incomplete — but in a way that invites mental completion — is something a lot of the art students really responded to.”