September 1, 2009

Fine Print: Etchings at the Johnson

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What do a 17th-Century Dutch printmaker, the Edict of Nantes and two present-day Ithacans have in common? Quite a bit, actually. So do the political commentary and a urine sample from Louis XIV. Their unifying thread is on display at the Johnson Art Museum’s new exhibition, Romeyn de Hooghe: Virtuoso Etcher, a show of de Hooghe’s etchings in subject matters ranging from the commercial to the political.
The curators of the exhibition have done this talented printmaker justice by highlighting his best artistic qualities. While his style of rendering and portraiture is good, it is not great; rather, it is his graceful and believable treatment of real and fantastical spaces, often in the same image, which make his work unique. De Hooghe’s “dazzling economy of space” — the curator’s words, not mine — allows him to effectively illustrate a cavernous hall on a plate no bigger than a piece of Xerox paper, or to seamlessly integrate allegorical characters into a real contemporary events. The exhibition even features an unusual visual table of contents de Hooghe created for a book of short stories: episodes from different stories occur simultaneously in one frenzied “index” image.
Just as de Hooghe’s compositional aptitude saves his work from being average, the curators’ focus on conservation efforts and relevant historical trivia save the exhibition’s accompanying essays from being dull. For this we can thank conservationist Tatyana Petukhova LaVine who, along with the owner of the de Hooghe collection, is actually an Ithacan. LaVine’s commentary ties her work to the times and conditions that created her area of expertise (by the way, it was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which forced many French Protestant papermakers to flee to the Netherlands, that began the Dutch papermaking boom during which de Hooghe produced his thousands of etchings). The essays explain the importance of sturdy, archival paper in preserving centuries-old works of art — the paper is equally as essential as, if not more important than, the type of ink or printing press used. Without it the printmaking media would have been far less accessible to the European public; and without LaVine’s steady hand, several of de Hooghe’s works would still bear the scars of being folded up, probably for centuries.
And it is also truly refreshing to read museum literature that, for once, does not simply explain the printmaking processes used to make the work on display (although the exhibition’s ephemera does consist of the uninteresting copperplate made by de Hooghe’s hand, along with an etching needle from Graphic Chemical art supplies). Even the often-dry genre of title plaque “blurb” is interesting in this show, partly because of the historical and often personal context it provides, and partly because de Hooghe’s work is pretty quirky. For example, in one print, an excited-looking crowd gathers around a man holding a small bottle of liquid. The man is a doctor, the label explains, examining a sample of urine from Louis XIV (also pictured). The doctor’s diagnosis? “Disturbed brains.”
Many other prints in Virtuoso Etcher criticize the French for their atrocities during the Franco-Dutch War, most notably the six-plate series “The Theatre of Changes in the Netherlands.” De Hooghe relies heavily upon allegory to relate six phases of events in the Netherlands from peace to war and back to peace again. It is impressive and weighty, and shares wall space with several other depictions of military conquests and maps of war. However, this grouping of serious history prints do not share the wit and op-ed tone of many of his other works; the two rooms of the exhibition divide de Hooghe’s work between direct reporting and opinion-based works. The show begins, fortunately, with de Hooghe’s political commentaries in the first room and then leads into the more literal “news.” Because it is cheap and easy to mass-produce, printmaking has historically played an important part in political commentary, propoganda and satire, but neither does Virtuoso Etcher ignore printmaking’s serious side. The exhibitions’ curators have pointedly played up the differences that result from de Hooghe’s varied styles and intents.
There is one final category of work in de Hooghe’s repertoire: the commercial contract print. For everything from posters to books, de Hooghe provided illustrations (although, interestingly, he not only illustrated, but also wrote himself, “The Theatre of Changes in the Netherlands”). Virtuoso Etcher includes some odd and rather ambiguous pictures from a self-defense manual in which the clear victor is hard to identify, as well as a grid of mnemonic illustrations from a legal study guide; in the latter each image is no more than two inches tall, but describes pictorially enough information to name a crime, trial and verdict. It’s dazzling. Another etching represents a sweeping view of ancient Greece’s humans and gods, placed in and around a landscape at different sizes, in which poor Sisyphus is so tiny he’s almost invisible. The number of planes and scales de Hooghe manages to fit in a single drawing is truly amazing.
De Hooghe drew everything from royal processions to Virgin Marys to biting satirical criticisms of France to robed allegorical ladies — a task which could feasibly lead to tired, overused imagery but which he kept from being repetitive. His compositional sense was extraordinary, and the Johnson Museum’s show of his work is very well-curated, extensive and as eccentric as the work itself.