Saturday, September 17, 2016


James Gurney is one of the most visually insatiable artists I've met. He is famously productive-- he draws and paints all the damn time.  If he gets trapped in a conversation too long, or if he has to wait in line to get his car inspected, his fingers get itchy and he feels compelled to haul out his portable watercolors.  When he looks you in the eye, you can't help but feel that part of him is measuring you from an artist's perspective.

Which is why I was particularly interested in Gurney's perspective on Adolph Menzel, the great German draftsman who felt similarly compelled to record everything he saw, everywhere he went.  Gurney's excellent new book on Menzel fills a great void by retrieving and publishing  drawings that have been hidden away for decades in an East German museum.

Menzel's obsession with recording worldly things enabled him to see the drama we might otherwise miss in a chest full of old documents:

Or to show us his respect for the symmetry and structure of a steel mill:

Menzel didn't put down his pencil when an acquaintance sat on the toilet:

Or even when opening caskets to help identify bodies:

Gurney's book contains a fascinating story about Menzel's 1873 expedition into a dark crypt beneath a garrison church to open old military coffins and identify the remains of the officers there. He drew these figures by lantern light.

But the thing that impressed me most about these drawings by Menzel is that the process didn't become mechanical for him.  He was not drawing out of mere habit.  After thousands and thousands of drawings, he still responded to the visual power of the world around him:

Gurney's large, thoughtful selection of images shows the full range of Menzel's drawing, and some I liked more than others, but they all make clear that Menzel was drawing for the right reasons.


James Gurney said...

Thanks for the review and the kind words, David.

Diego Fernetti said...

Incredible book, I should get a copy!

kev ferrara said...

Great review, David. Glad to read your appreciation for this excellent book and Menzel's top flight draughtsmanship. As you point out, nothing by Menzel is perfunctory.

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- Thanks for your efforts to bring Menzel's work to a wider audience. I think your book is a public service and I enjoyed reading your well researched, thoughtful discussion of his life and work.

Diego Fernetti-- Yes, you should.

Kev Ferrara-- I would have guessed that Menzel's work appealed to your taste. So many viewers today make judgments on the basis of a narrow window of U.S. fan art from the past 20 or 30 years, and come to silly conclusions about quality. Broadening their basis for comparison with books like this can only be a good thing.

MORAN said...

David, what's the story behind the coffins?

Tom said...

Wow great drawings. Menzel work remains me that, whatever one is looking for, it is always present, right before or eyes, the street we walk down the person we are talking too, the constant presence of reality, "the ineluctable modality of the visible."

Anonymous said...

I wish I was as motivated to draw as Menzel! xD

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