Courtesy of the Johnson Museum

March 25, 2017

An Illustrious History: Exploring Works of European Printmaking

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Historical art transcends its confinement of a mere technique of human expression and assumes the parallel role of an artifact of history, often providing valuable insight as to how society thinks and functions. Through various techniques, the imaginative freedom inherent to art predisposes itself to reveal some of the most subterranean of individuals’ fascinations, fantasies and perceptions of themselves and the spaces that they inhabit. As a result, these expressions constitute some of the truest expositions of minds long gone. Distributed among the Moak, Class of 1953 and Schaenen Galleries of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Escaping the Ordinary offers a window into three centuries of imaginative explorations of European printmaking.

Though initially surprised to see an assembly of magnifying glasses available for visitors to use, I eventually became attuned to the medium of the works and developed a sincere appreciation for the handheld lenses. While the exhibition displays many techniques of printing, in general the images share a common theme in the way the show space; dimension is not, as is conventionally associated with painting or drawing, realized through a gradation of shading — rather via a heterogenous distribution of lines. Thus, depth and dimension, within the context of printmaking, can be thought of as an intentional consequence of the distortion of lines in print.

Magnifying glass in hand, an area of particular fascination for me was a wall of the Moak Gallery, which was dedicated to the cityscape and its centrality as a subject of artistic imagination. Divided into left and right halves, Canaletto — also known as Giovanni Antonio Canal — brings to life this 1741 reconception of the urban landscape in his “Imaginary View of Venice.” The culmination of dimension and depth among the rich imagery of the work is most beautifully realized in the sky and the clouds. Though black and white, the texture and presence of the atmospheric topography are almost palpable. One quickly appreciates the visual intricacies that are made accessible by the magnifying lens. The etching also achieves a juxtaposition of the quintessential and the atypical portrayal of Venice. The middleground of the etching is defined by a labyrinth of canals, surrounded by a developing working-class district in the foreground. Meanwhile, the stately cathedrals and grandiose buildings of Venetian aristocracy recede into the backdrop. The simplistic becomes the sublime through the unconventional emphasis on working class life, such as by a depiction of a woman draping her clothes over the parapet of her apartment. Yet, the most compelling element of “Imaginary View of Venice” is a subject seated on top of a building in the foreground, located on the right side of the etching. The subject appears deep in contemplation, while gazing at something removed from the boundaries of the print. The manifestation of Canaletto’s imaginative genius, therefore, lies not only in his nuanced depiction of the dynamics that shape urban space on a macro scale — from domestic chores to a market scene on the canal — but also in the philosophical ruminations and internal conflicts that are preserved in the person taking a brief reprieve from the difficulties of working-class existence.

Printing techniques also allowed artists to explore subjects that stretched and contorted the bounds of the ordinary, if not transcending them altogether. Diana Mantuana revives and transforms the narratives of myth with “The Feast of the Gods,” a mid-16th century representation of a series of frescos by the earlier muralist Giulio Romano. Located in the Class of 1953 Gallery, the initial sense of awe is produced by the proportions and the staggering complexity of the imagery. 44 inches long and 15 inches high, the scale of the endeavor compelled Mantuana to divide the work into a series of three fused panels. The engraving technique exemplified by “The Feast of the Gods” involved the painstaking etching of the image onto a copper plate, creating a series of raised lines which would transpose the image onto paper. The fluidity and detail of the engraving greatly enhance the bacchanalian scene for the long-separated lovers, Cupid and Psyche. The excesses of mythological imaginations — the sheer abundance of food and drink, the visible inebriation of the subjects, references to temptation via depictions of satyrs and snakes — allude to the unconscious desires both of the artist and of society at large. The fantasies generated by prints, such as Mantuana’s, may have offered the viewer a comforting respite in the way that images of prosperity provide a seductive escape from reality.


The Schaenen Gallery further immerses the viewer with a plethora of artistic themes and depictions, testifying to the creative burgeoning that printmaking witnessed throughout its history. Three 18th century etchings by Giovanni Piranesi — from his series Le Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) — bring to life vivid depictions of the artist’s inner conflicts. The imagery of the etchings reinvents the idea of a prison, evoking solitude, isolation and hopelessness through scenes illustrating the enormous interiors of ruined buildings with stairs and pathways that ultimately lead nowhere. The human figures peppered throughout these works are, at best, hazy reductions of wretched and tormented beings. While they maintain their status as important visual elements, they are simultaneously tools by which Piranesi exerts his masterful control over dimension; not only does their miniscule size amplify the scale of the setting to colossal proportions, but their juxtaposition with the setting constructs a powerful commentary on Piranesi’s relationship with his own existence. The prisoners are not physically constrained by conventional barriers — such as the bars of a jail cell — but by the absurd nature of the human condition. The insurmountable solitude that is evinced by the etchings’ subjects, though aided in no small part by the labyrinthine networks of each print, may have ultimately been a function of Piranesi’s own loneliness and dissonance with which he regarded the vacuousness of mortal existence. Imaginary Prisons, along with the rest of the prints, succeeds in transcending the blandness conventionally associated with black-and-white imagery. Rather, it is the distracting capabilities of color that are superseded by imaginative flourishes of both the artist’s intention and of the inherent focus that monochrome works endow their subjects. While visually less complex than other visual media, these stunning masterpieces of printmaking produce a narrative that is nonetheless compelling in its execution. The ideas ensouled by these prints evince echoing themes that endure in their pertinence to the contemporary trials of the human condition. And while the world has evolved since the time of these prints’ creation, the candid introspections of Escaping the Ordinary — spanning from absurd realities to mythological fantasies — combine with the imaginative predispositions of such artistic explorations in a breathtaking reduction of the temporal chasms between three centuries of human history and the present.

Varun Biddanda is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].