A passion for drawing

Drawing is the probity of art. It is a way of talking about the things that interest you,
says B. N. Goswamy as he discovers Arnold Kubler’s workbook, full of drawings in pencil

To draw does not simply mean to reproduce contours; the drawing does not simply consist in the idea: the drawing is even the expression, the interior form, the plan, the model. Look what remains after that! The drawing is three fourths and a half of what constitutes the painting. If I had to put a sign over the door to my atelier, I would write: ‘School of Drawing’, and I’m certain that I would create painters.

Jean A. Dominique Ingres

Portrait of the painter Eugene Delacroix at the age of 26: Drawing by Arnold Kubler based upon a work by Alexander M. Colin
Portrait of the painter Eugene Delacroix at the age of 26: Drawing by Arnold Kubler based upon a work by Alexander M. Colin

THESE words of the great French artist, or something like this, came to my mind when I landed, purely by chance — I was not looking for it — upon a book by Arnold Kubler in an antique bookshop in Aarau, Switzerland. Draw, Antonio! was the unusual title: spat out like an imperious command rather than as a suggestion. My curiosity was aroused: Whose words were these? Who was speaking to whom, and why? Availing myself of the leisured way of exploring books on unending bookshop shelves, which is one of the greatest joys of life that the ‘Antiquariats’ of Europe offer, I sank into a chair close by, beginning first to leaf through the work, and then becoming completely absorbed in it.

It was a ‘work-book’, as artists call it, crammed full with drawing after drawing, sometimes five or six on a page, all done by the author, Arnold Kubler, and all done in pencil. What took me by surprise was the fact that only a few of these drawings were of landscapes, city corners, and such-like, that Kubler had made on his own: delicate, virtuoso works that breathed a quiet life. Nearly everything else was drawings — simple, swiftly made small sketches — that were like visual notes on works of art that Kubler saw and responded to in museums, galleries, private collections, in the course of his unceasing travels in Europe. Nearly each time, however, he caught the essence of masterful works. On a single page, Picasso might find himself next to Matisse, Degas by the side of Van Gogh, a striding Giacometti figure conversing as it were with a Cezanne still-life.

But there was, in his quick renderings of these works, a wonderful understanding of the works: the force of the line, the tonal values, the direction that thoughts had taken in the mind of the artist. It was easy to see that Kubler was not simply copying, or only documenting what he was seeing, but engaging with it visually. By the side of each drawing was a date on which he had made it, the place where he saw the work, the name of the artist, sometimes even the size of the original work. Had documentation been his sole aim, Kubler said in the long and passionate text in German that introduced the volume, taking photographs would have been much the simpler route to take. But this is not what his enterprise was about. He loved the act of drawing, and he wanted to enter the works through drawing them.

As I sat savouring the volume, which I did eventually buy, I was also in the process of making up my mind about wanting to know more about Arnold Kubler, whose work this was, but also something about where did the unusual title come from. The second query was easily answered: in a brief note Kubler had himself explained that the words of the title he had used for his work were Michelangelo’s, the great Italian master having scribbled these, a bit angrily perhaps, on a preliminary sketch submitted to him by a somewhat lethargic pupil of his, Antonio by name. "Disegna Antonio!" the master had written in Italian, which translates of course into the emphatic "Draw, Antonio! Draw!" There was no alternative to drawing, no easy way, Michelangelo was saying: do not waste your time doing other things. For drawing is the probity of art; as also a way of talking about the things that interest you, as someone else said. To go back to Arnold Kubler, however. He was a fascinating figure, everyone told me in Switzerland, most remembered for his having been the editor of one of the most brilliantly produced art magazines of the world: DU. Born in 1890 close to Zurich, to working class parents, Kubler developed artistic ambitions early and ended up being a dramatist, novelist, kabarettist, and draughtsman. His desire to lead a life in theatre was foiled by an accident, the surgery following which left his face deeply scarred. But it was as an editor, first of the Zuricher Illustrierten and then of the famous DU, that he really came into his own.

Because in the pages of these magazines, for the periodical appearance of which his readers anxiously waited, month after month, he was able to bring together all the arts, and some of the most famous names that wrote on these themes. Also the work of some of the most celebrated names in the world of photography. But, on his own, he never gave up his interest in drawing, and, restlessly right till the end, which came in 1983, he wanted to explore and to understand. What a great many people recall is the journey he made, entirely on foot, from Basel in Switzerland to Paris, a distance of some 500 miles or so. He set off, with the lightest of baggages, but armed with a pencil: "a quiet, clean, odourless, inexpensive, and lightweight instrument". And returned with a satchel filled with moving drawings, some of which are in this book.

One can go on endlessly about the art of drawing, and cite from one famous artist after another, in century after century, about the value of drawing, and its excitement. But I am tempted to end with a wonderful passage from the great Japanese master, Hokusai:

"From the age of six", he wrote in his old age, "I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50, I had published a universe of design, but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvellous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create – a dot, a line –will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing’."