Review: Tracing the Century, Tate

It’s no accident that the posters for the Tate’s first post-Biennial show features a cosy pair of gonads. They’re a statement of intent. You think, after the knotty machinations of the Biennial, that drawing has no balls? Think again.

This is no palette cleanser of a show, a sorbet to soothe our furrowed brows after the knotty interventions and installations at Copperas Hill. It’s a robust argument for the life force of the drawn line. Take a look at the scorched vertical underscore beneath Picasso’s signature (Dora Maar Seated) and you realise: in the hands of the masters, drawing is a manifesto, not a medium.

It’s a manifesto that shifts as the line is taken for a walk by others… in the frenzied mind breaths of Julie Mehretu they take on the mercurial properties of photons floating behind closed eyes, in the hands of Gaugin, the languid outlines of nubile Tahitians.

David Hockney once moaned about how passport photos were far less honest a representation of him, or of anyone, than a decent sketch. It’s a fact borne out in this tender portrait of his mother.

Warhol saves his tenderness, both at the beginning of his career, and thirty years later, for young boys at rest – showcasing a graphical skill borne out of his days as a Mad Man, sketching commercial art pieces for magazines and adverts.

The show groups works together by themes, rather than ages, and reveals artists’ repeated attempts to capture the spirit of the human figure: from the pyroclastic flow of Willem de Kooning’s bronze sculpture (sculpted in the dark, as were his abstract sketches of models – a jumble of dislocated crevices and flaps. Second pic), to the anatomical renderings of William Orpen (he of the gonads, whose super-sized works dive beneath the skin, and reveal a lattice of muscle and tendon every bit as detailed as those plastinated bodies in Liverpool ONE. First pic)

Sculpture? Yes, there are a few jarring 3D additions to this exhibition – but all pieces show how a line drawn in space (from Henry Moore to Julio Gonzalez) attempts at something honest and pure: to give dimension to form, and ring fence the ethereal. It’s a skill evocatively showcased in Anthony McCall’s seminal solid-light film, projected in a spectral, fog-filled antechamber, Line Describing a Cone.

Bacon does it with elan in his Turning Figure, Emin with unflinching honesty – her Exploration of the Soul; a short story about her early years’ family abuse written (with appalling spelling – Tommartoe, anyone?) on lined notepaper. Talk about framing her family.

Many of the exhibition’s later pieces – Pettibon’s lauded new works, and Greyson Perry’s etchings – left us cold. There was something of the mannered and self-conscious in their subject matter.

But that’s not to say the life-force of the drawn line is waning. Highlight, for us, were the 1990’s William Kentridge films, animated charcoal tales of his South African homeland, sharing something of the kinetic wall graffiti work of BLU – but far darker, the pieces leaving their ghostly impression on us just as his successive, wiped-out images, leave their marks on his canvas.

Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst For Change
Until January 20, 2013
Tate Liverpool
Albert Dock