March 24, 2009

Philly Print Show Trumps Cezanne

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While everyone’s lining up with their $22 timed tickets to see the Cezanne & Beyond show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, look instead at the museum’s much-smaller but equally interesting exhibition Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Durer and Titian. The Cezanne-viewers will be bottlenecked through low-ceilinged rooms and bumping elbows as they listen to their audio tours, but you, enlightened visitor, will be strolling through the relatively empty galleries of Monumental Prints, gazing at astounding Renaissance engravings and etchings.
The viewer’s first glimpse of these monumental prints is at the grandest of them all — at over 10 feet tall, it was too big to be installed in the gallery and instead hangs imposing and lonely in the hallway. It is “The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I,” orchestrated by Albrecht Durer and completed by a small team of artists and printers in 1515. It took almost 200 woodblocks to print the entire composition, and like many works in the show, it was printed again, in this case over two centuries after its original publication. Durer’s “Triumphal Arch” is truly exceptional, yet even the smaller prints from the show hold their own space on the wall by virtue of their painstaking attention to detail, demonstration of technical expertise, and (to our modern eyes) totally wild subject matter. The star of the works inside the gallery is an enormous woodcut — drawn, according to the inscription at the bottom, directly onto the pieces of wood by Titian in 1514. The “Submersion of Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea” is painterly, almost abstract in its representation of sky and water and totally mesmerizing. It is an example of woodcut printmaking at its finest and most sophisticated.
On the other hand, “What Do You See?” by the German artist Erhard Schön is anything but sophisticated. It is an anamorphic woodcut image which appears to be a simple, rather primitive land- and sea-scape. But imagine the poor viewer’s shock when he/she looks parallel to the picture plane from the image’s lower left-hand corner and sees this banal landscape transformed into a man squatting to relieve himself! The prints in this show largely depict historical, contemporary or biblical events, so this vulgar image is quite unexpected. It stands alone among scenes of daily life, maps, triumphal processions, crucifixions, and languishing allegorical figures.
There are three notable “firsts” included in this show, which are easy to overlook but very important markers in art history. First, there is a print by the German artist Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536). He was the first artist to use the medium of etching. Second, the “The Feast of the Gods” was made by the Italian Diana Mantuana (1547-1612), who was the first female printmaker to sign her work. And finally, there is a wonderful holy-land guidebook of sorts, by the woodcut printmaker Erhard Reuwich (1455-1490), which is the first example of fold-out illustrations in book form. These three works demonstrate that Renaissance printmakers truly revolutionized the art world. They were pioneers, pre-cursors to our modern avant-gardes, who took their medium in new and expansive directions to compete with paintings and tapestries as well as to distribute their work more widely than would be possible with (costly) painting alone. Limited by the relatively small size of the printing presses and paper available to them, they adapted their work to a larger format by carefully aligning multiple small prints like tiles into, at times, enormous single images. That Renaissance printmakers did so much with so little equipment, so few materials, and no historical precedent is the main focus of the exhibition. The curators have selected works from all of the European nations with established printmaking traditions, in all of the Renaissance printmaking techniques, and depicting a range of subjects. Not only does each print demonstrate its creator’s technical proficiency and innovation, but also his or her take on history, current events or God. It is also clear in this exhibition that while some works were intended for royal, aristocratic, or non-secular audiences, others (remember “What Do You See?”) were certainly not. The exhibition is a concise investigation of a centuries-old medium in its infancy that will captivate both the expert and casual art historian.