December 17, 2009  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
A Surrealist Sketchbook: Enrico Donati
Enrico Donati, American, born Italy. 1909-2008. Untitled (Sketchbook). c. 1944. Ink on paper ( three details shown), 10 x 8" (25.4 x 20.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Adele Donati. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Enrico Donati. Untitled (Sketchbook). c. 1944. Ink on paper (three details shown), 10 x 8" (25.4 x 20.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Adele Donati. © 2009 The Museum of Modern Art

One of the little-known highlights in the collection of the Department of Drawings is our vast array of artists’ sketchbooks, which range from intimate diaristic notations and markings, to explicit studies for complete works in other mediums, to accomplished works unto themselves, rendered as carefully and thoughtfully as paintings, for example, of the same subject matter.

This past May we received, as a gift, an outstanding example of an artist’s sketchbook. Enrico Donati, who passed away last year at the age of 99, was considered to be “the last of the Surrealists.” His wife, Adele Donati, approached the Museum about donating one of his sketchbooks to the collection. Born in Milan, Italy, in 1909, Donati settled in New York City in 1940. It was not his first time in the States, though—while studying in Paris years earlier, he had frequented the Museé de I’Homme (also a favorite haunt of other Surrealist artists) and, captivated by displays of ethnographic objects from Native American cultures, he was inspired to travel throughout the American Southwest and Canada. My colleagues noted that his studio had an endless variety of cultural artifacts, textiles, and plants, revealing a curiosity about objects in the world that remained constant throughout his life.

In New York, Donati studied at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research. After his first solo exhibitions at the Passedoit Gallery and the New School in 1942, he was introduced to André Breton, leader of the Surrealism movement, who championed his work. Soon after, he became a member of an artistic circle that included such luminaries as Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, and Arshile Gorky. During the height of his Surrealist period, Donati created this particular sketchbook, comprising fifty-eight intricately and beautifully rendered ink drawings. An exquisite work in its own right, the 1944 sketchbook is also a wonderful complement to St. Elmo’s Fire, a painting Donati completed in the same year, which is also in MoMA’s collection. Leafing through these pages one sees the full range of his imagery and motifs, including the anthropomorphic columns, navel-like vortexes, eyes, clocks, and tunnels that would come to populate his paintings and sculptures. The sketchbook also features various experimentations with the drawn line and shading, as well as other graphic techniques, such as cross-hatching, scratching, and stippling.

Donati titled several of the drawings on their facing pages, in pencil, in both French and English. In La Création de monde le huitème jour/Creation of the World the 8th Day, a pyramid structure caps a bizarrely segmented form, lending an air of antiquity. Another sketch, titled Nid de mandragore/Mandragore Nest, invokes one of the ruling symbols of Donati’s oeuvre: the mandragore, or mandrake root. Intrigued by the mythological belief that this root held “extraordinary regenerative and transformative capabilities,” the artist saw it as a metaphor for his thoughts and intentions as an artist.

The sketchbook is currently on view in the Museum’s collection galleries on the fifth floor—I hope you have an opportunity to stop by and see it in person!