Some exhibitions have no need of fanfares, bunting, flashing light displays and interactive gizmos - absolute simplicity is all that's needed. This exquisite offering from the Ashmolean brings together 120 of Raphael's drawings, and very little else. The effect is rather gorgeous, and utterly absorbing.
Adding to the Ashmolean's world-leading collection of Raphael sketches, the exhibition brings together sheets on loan from the Albertina in Vienna, the Uffizi in Florence, and from various international collections including the Queen's. The works are presented chronologically, spanning the artist's early years in Urbino, through the honing of his craft in Florence, to the height of his career in Rome. Each individual piece is captioned in terms of the artistic process, the techniques employed, materials used, composition and intended visual effect, and the sketches increase in complexity as we move through the artist's life. High above the central exhibits a few shafts of light falling against the wall suggest a roughly sketched figure - an angel perhaps. A modest case of drawing materials such as the artist might have used gives context, and a few sections of the display include a small reproduction of one of the large, well-known and colourful masterpieces for which the sketches were studies, but the decision not to make much of these, and to let the drawings speak for themselves, is a deliberate one. The pared-down chronological approach and devotion to the core of the subject reinforce the fact that Raphael died when he was just 37, and the notion that the extraordinary mastery of the later drawings might have become all the greater is quite an arresting one.
The Ashmolean's Director Dr Xa Sturgis describes the exhibition as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, mainly because the delicacy of the drawings means they are not often lent by one museum to another, and are unlikely to be gathered together again for a long time. It's exciting to wander through a display of such significance, but it's the immediacy of the experience that makes it so illuminating. The dim lighting, which can sometimes make an exhibition seem quiet and lifeless, works perfectly here among the fruits of such concentration and industry. Examining from centimetres away the textured paper and the curve of each individual chalk-stroke, it really does seem as if each one could have been scratched just moments earlier - as if the artist has just stepped out for a minute, and as if the exhibition's hush is just an stretched-out momentary pause in an environment of activity. Seeing the sketches in the flesh, as it were, makes a great difference. The museum's lavish exhibition catalogue contains some really beautiful reproductions of items in the collection, but without being able to see the grain of the paper and assess the size of the sheets, you don't get the same sense of context and something, somewhere, is lost.
Much is made of the thought processes behind Raphael's art. The drawings allow us an insight into the dynamism of the creative journey, the intricacies of composition, the revisions and re-workings of form and stance, and the artist emerges as a master not only of visual representation, but of human emotion thus suggested: of the translation of violence, of struggle, of childhood, of humour, of religious ecstasy - of the sublime. Traditional religious subjects and classical scenes are interpreted with dynamic figures and naturalistic poses, a daring manipulation of sacred context which is invigorating and compelling.
Like other artists of the High Renaissance, Raphael manipulated the boundaries of realism to enhance the beauty and pathos of his images, without quite slipping into the Mannerist approach later developed by his contemporaries. The exhibition's co-curator, Dr Catherine Whistler, happily introduced the - to my mind potentially revolutionary - concept of Renaissance yoga, the no doubt creatively beneficial practice of attempting to adopt those beautifully drawn poses which look tantalisingly natural but could never quite be achieved in real life.
I enjoyed this glimpse of the other side of the serious process of setting up such an important and deeply rewarding exhibition, so sensitively and intelligently put together - where the lightest of touches unveils extraordinary intricacy and depth. And I enjoy imagining a visitor to the exhibition engaging in a little Renaissance yoga here and there, stretching the body and the mind in unexpected ways, alongside another, nose to frame, lost in a tiny detail of drapery or a lock of hair.