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Dream project: cathedrals in charcoal

NIKOLAUS PEVSNER observed at the beginning of his ``Outline of European Architecture'': ``A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.'' English artist Dennis Creffield is not much concerned with bicycle sheds. But he is intensely interested in cathedrals. From February to November last year he drove all over England to fulfill a remarkable dream project. The aim was to draw 26 of the major English cathedrals - all those that were medieval monastic or collegiate foundations. They ranged from the immensely popular and overvisited, like Canterbury and York, to the least known or even ignored, like Oxford and Peterborough.

Lincoln Cathedral was one of the first he drew. He had to rush to see it, because its West Front was about to be covered in scaffolding. He calls it ``the terrifying cathedral,'' and when he stood in front of it and knew that he had only ``three short winter days in which to make an image of it,'' he almost gave up. ``I felt a panic fear that I had taken on an impossible task,'' he notes. But finally he ``looked to the example of the original builders. What they had had the courage to build I should have the courage to draw,'' he concluded.

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In fact the entire project proved to be something of a rush, but the results, as R.B. Kitaj has written, are ``wonderful'' and ``various within the play of charcoal's strike, smudge and daring. Ingres would not have drawn like this but yes, Turner might have.... The drawings swell and sway in great dusks and almighty storms of every kind of light and charcoaled mist.''

Charcoal proves in Creffield's hands to be remarkably versatile, compassing vaulted heights, shadowy recesses and mysteries, the swinging curves of arches, and the intricate traceries of windows. It is a medium of black, hard structures in stone no less than elliptical, atmospheric spaces. It states and specifies. It also smears and suggests. Creffield's technique appears, at first sight, to have a haste that might be mistaken for laziness. At second sight, its rigors and muscularity become evident. He admits: ``I had to learn to draw fast and shoot from the hip.''

But he is also tough enough with his perceptions to claim convincingly that this staggering from cathedral to cathedral was like ``wrestling with an endless succession of giants (or angels). And needing to come back each time with a hair from their head.'' He did not want to approach them as ``someone who knows how to draw - who could arrive - do their thing and move on.'' He wanted instead to ``learn to draw at each cathedral - ... if possible, to let the cathedral make the drawing.''

An exhibition now traveling in Britain is the result of the project, and it has a catalog to go with it. The catalog is punctuated with diary-like notes that complement the drawings, and is full of illuminating remarks and observations, background, and musings. At Worcester, for example, he noted: ``It rained all the time and I thought of Elgar.''

Creffield draws undaunted by any need for a single viewpoint: He explores the entire complexity of moving three-dimensionally through an architectural space. Quoting from Wittgenstein, he endorses the idea in his drawings: ``Architecture is a gesture.''

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