PROVIDENCE — A tubby snake-man slouches about in shabby clothes and work shoes, forked tongue flickering, like a half-remembered dream image anybody would rather forget.
He’s the subject of an untitled charcoal sketch by Georg Baselitz in “Lines of Thought: Drawing From Michelangelo to Now: From the British Museum,” up through Jan. 7 at the RISD Museum, an exhibition that places us at the artist’s elbow, flushed with the heat of creation.
Baselitz made the smudged, cursory drawing in 1965, as he was working his way toward “Heroes,” a series of drawings, paintings, and prints of soldiers broken by battle. The big “Heroes” paintings were freighted with ambivalence, if not despair.
The snake-man is a whim, a fancy, a finger exercise. After all, he’s out of bounds; Baselitz was out to depict men, not vipers. But he’s a perfect articulation of a figure drained of his power. He may have been just a smoke ring snared and amplified with a stub of charcoal, but he helped the artist articulate his bigger vision.
“Lines of Thought” warms and crackles with this type of kindling. It’s not about the final product, but about the fits and starts, the inspirations and wrong turns, and the seemingly endless groping toward sense that precedes the final product. It’s a show not of artwork — the artists might cry, “No, don’t look! Don’t judge me based on this!” — but of the compost and cultivation that goes into art’s making.
The exhibition arose after the Bridget Riley Art Foundation invited the British Museum to devise a program to lure more students to its Prints and Drawings Study Room. These days, many art students pick up their iPhones more readily than pencils. Riley, an Op artist, sees drawing as enduringly fundamental.
Workshops were mounted, offering students time to investigate drawings, to discover a figure’s center of gravity, or the force of a swooping line, or how light seeps through shadow. There’s a contemplative enchantment to looking closely and rendering by hand, a sweet balance of analysis and invention. The students got the bug.
Hugo Chapman, the British Museum’s keeper of prints and drawings, recognized the ingredients of a rare exhibition based not on scholarship but on the drawings that the workshop students loved the most. How apt to bring it to RISD, where the museum has set up a drawing lab right outside the exhibition.
Curator Isabel Seligman describes drawing as thinking, and organizes “Lines of Thought” around stages in the creative process, from early, exploratory note-taking (where the snake-man hangs) through brainstorming, problem-solving, and decision-making. She takes license to jump through time and make startling associations, finding unlikely kinship in drawings a scholar working within the standard outlines of art history would never pair.
One wall groups Rembrandt’s “A clump of trees in a fenced enclosure” with Mondrian’s early “Tree study,” and finds harmony in the jittery way the artists lay out pattern in nature. In between hangs a calligraphic, brushy, Franz Kline doodle, like a dark lightning bolt of inspiration.
Another sets Riley’s study for her “Arrest” series, mapped on graph paper with graphite lines dropping straight beneath wavy gouache ones, beside Georges Seurat’s study for “La Grande Jatte,” made 80 years before. Using interlaced strokes of conté crayon on textured paper, Seurat drew the central couple in a soft fuzz of tones. The woman’s bustle and parasol swivel around the rigid line of her posture, rhyming with Riley’s vertical lines and undulating bars.
Artists take wild risks on their sketchpads. They plot, muse, and make mistakes. The pad is like a diary, where an artist feels safe to record images that will never see the light of day.
Alexander Cozens, an 18th-century British painter, recognized the value of starting from the dark cave of the unconscious and codified it in a teaching method. He blotted his page randomly with ink, and in the blots found landscapes, a technique that anticipated Surrealism. His brash studies call to mind Hans Hofmann’s loose-handed ink drawings made 200 years later.
Others, in the privacy of their studios, draw images their contemporaries might find ludicrous. Danish artist Melchior Lorck, working in Venice during the Renaissance, drew “Tortoise and view of a walled, coastal town,” in which a mammoth turtle floats godlike above a fortified town.
Perhaps Lorck was simply working out separate ideas on a single page, or maybe he sensed a correspondence between the tortoise’s shell and the town’s defenses. Either way, he has the premise for a fable, or a creation myth.
Many drawings in “Lines of Thought,” like Baselitz’s, pave the way to finished works. In studies for “Adam and Eve,” Albrecht Dürer fiddles with the position of Adam’s hand. Adam holds the fateful apple in two of the sketches. Others depict his empty hand in degrees of openness.
In the final, magnificent, widely published engraving, Dürer gives the apple to Eve, as she removes it from the serpent’s mouth. He consciously chose to depict Adam as still innocent as Eve initiates humanity’s eviction from paradise. What if the artist had left the apple in Adam’s possession? Surely there would have been a butterfly effect.
“Lines of Thought” places us in the thick of ideas fomenting. Techniques are tested, compositions reoriented, caprices played out. This peek inside the engine of creation reveals a process of dreaming and experimenting that remains notably consistent over centuries, even as technology and social upheaval drive art to places most of these artists could not have imagined. It’s a picture of how the human mind works.
LINES OF THOUGHT: Drawing From Michelangelo to Now: From the British Museum
At RISD Museum, 20 North Main St., Providence, through Jan. 7. 401-454-6500, www.risdmuseum.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.