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: An Exhibition of Prints


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The history of the graphic arts, which reflects so accurately and so intimately the history of human thought and endeavor in many fields, is outlined in an exhibition of woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and lithographs now on view in the Print Gallery. This exhibition, one of the periodic surveys built around the Herschel V. Jones Collection, is largely confined to typical masterpieces that illustrate important developments in printmaking. Among these masterpieces, and serving as major points of interest, are great works by five men whose achievements in the medium of black and white are generally conceded to have surpassed those of all others: Mantegna, Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Daumier. Each stands out as a supreme artist in his own time and each had an enormous influence on his contemporaries and followers. It is notable that each was also a painter—although three were more painters than others—and this suggests that their success as printmakers may have been due in part to the greater freedom and experience which the painter’s training, as opposed to the graphic artist’s training, brings to the practice of printmaking. Certainly, the modern artists whose work in the field of prints has shown exceptional merit have been almost without exception painters. Several of these are represented in the current exhibition, but, because no single master can yet be discerned among them, their work serves rather as an illustration of their bewildering virtuosity in the use of various media than as an example of any specific trend. If one were obliged to name one or two outstanding modern printmakers one could probably do so. However, perspective is indicated before any sound judgment, within the frame of the graphic arts, can be given. The fact that modern printmakers have profited and been inspired by the discoveries of their predecessors over a period of several centuries gives them a considerable edge in the bare making of prints. Whether their work will measure up to the artistic achievement of the past when it, too can be viewed as a distance, remains to be seen.The beginnings of printmaking in the first half of the fifteenth century found a group of anonymous artists making woodcuts and line engravings, the former probably antedating the latter by a few years. These arts were stimulated by the introduction into Europe of paper, which made possible numerous and cheap reproductions of pictures. The earliest prints in both media—and in the present exhibition these are largely confined to German examples—seem to have been used for playing cards and for individual prints of religious themes. Woodcuts were also used in blockbooks in which the text was incorporated with the illustration on one block. The simply drawn figures of these early woodcuts, the naïve attempt to suggest feeling by expression and gesture, the use of architectural details to add interest to the composition, and the colors, often crudely applied by hand, are characteristic of early woodcuts. To the contemporary eye they will appear stilted and awkward. Yet if the observer can project himself back into a time when illustrated books and magazines, advertisements employing every kind of photomechanical reproduction, films, and television, were not available to any member of society, he may grasp something of the excitement and color such prints brought into the lives of a people which did not live so much as subsist.The engravings of fifteenth-century Germany, created chiefly by men who had been trained as goldsmiths, are characterized by a linear style and an arbitrary handling of drapery that results in an abstract beauty unexpectedly appealing to the contemporary mind. The most important artist of this period in Germany was Schongauer, who was a painter as well as a goldsmith and who thus brought to the making of engravings a feeling for tone hitherto lacking. Schongauer’s early prints reveal the emphasis on detail and the busyness of line that marked his work before he felt the influence of the Renaissance. In later prints his draughtsmanship is more assured and his whole treatment simplified. The restrained and delicate style of his last period represents the culmination of the engraver’s art in fifteenth-century Germany.In Italy, meanwhile, somewhat similar developments were taking place. It was there, at the close of the fifteenth century, that Mantegna produced the seven engravings that place him among the very great masters of the art. So far as is known, he was the first painter to turn to engraving with no technical experience behind him, and this fact gave his work a boldness and freedom quite unknown in that of his northern contemporaries. He used the graver as he used a pen in drawing, laying open parallel lines with lightly stroked lines at an acute angle between them. His engravings possess, therefore, a monumentality and power never before, and seldom after, encountered in prints. Untroubled by technical problems, he concentrated on essentials, creating pictures that are not only great engravings but also supreme works of art. His Risen Christ Between St. Andrew and St. Longinus and his Battle of the Tritons (left portion of the Battle of the Sea Gods) are among the most precious possessions of the Institute. Two of his followers, Zoan Andrea and Campagnola, are represented in the exhibition. The latter introduced the technique of engraving in tines.Mantegna’s influence on Dürer was great, serving to hasten the feeling for form which, allied with Dürer’s calligraphic line, his system of crosshatching and his growing mastery of light, shade, and composition, make him the foremost of line engravers. Two of his greatest triumphs, technical and imaginative, in this medium are Adam and Eve and the brooding, enigmatic Melancholia. Dürer’s achievement in line engraving was equaled, if not surpassed, by his achievement in the field of woodcut. Almost from the beginning his genius in this medium was apparent. Without minimizing the importance of his white area, he filled his compositions with details so fine and crisp and exquisitely drawn than he brought new stature to this popular art. Such a print as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse reveals imagination and sense of drama, as well as the feeling for the significant element which was to mark his more mature work. Torn between the Gothic and Renaissance ideals, he achieved, in the end, a superbly balanced style.Of Dürer’s immediate contemporaries, Lucas van Leyden and Marcantonio are best known, the latter for the brilliantly simple technique he evolved from the Gothic and Renaissance methods of engraving. Others of Dürer’s contemporaries and followers included in the exhibition are Urs Graf, whose wood engraving of The Standard Bearer anticipates a later development in this medium; Hans Baldung, whose woodcut, The Bewitched Groom, is notable both as a technical and emotional achievement; and Albrecht Altdorfer, who is most affectionately remembered for his small woodcuts of The Fall and Redemption of Man. The last of the great woodcuts in the classic tradition are from Holbien’s Dance of Death, one of the most dramatically conceived and beautifully executed series ever made.With the decline of original engraving in the sixteenth century, etching began to occupy the attention of printmakers. Early examples are Dürer’s Great Cannon, etched on iron; Lucas van Leyden’s superb portrait of Maximilian, important not only because it is one of the first etchings done on copper but because it combines etching and engraving; and Hirschvogel’s landscape etchings. The calligraphic manner of the earliest etchings prevailed in the best Flemish work of the seventeenth century, but in Holland, with the coming of Rembrandt, the art took on new scope and grandeur as a medium of expression. About Rembrandt there is nothing left to say; his work speaks more eloquently for him than any words could do. He had, to a greater degree than any other, the knowledge and skill to produce pictures whose emotional impact is overpowering, and one has only to look at the moving series of religious subjects, the landscapes, or the self-portraits, to see how every effortless line was calculated to express thought and emotion. Of Rembrandt’s contemporaries, the best known is Ostade, who was especially gifted in genre and in atmosphere effects.An important figure in France at this time was Jacques Callot, one of the first etchers to practice the repeated biting of his plates. His most famous etchings are the series of The Disasters of War and a handful of beautiful landscapes, all of the, peopled with the dynamic, tiny figures which are such miracles of draughtsmanship.The delicacy and subtlety of Callot’s style, patterned on engraving, is reflected in the sparkling landscapes and architectural views of Canaletto, one of the most accomplished of eighteenth-century Italian etchers. His prints are filled with light and air and a sunshine so brilliant that everything seems to shimmer in its heat. As gifted as Canaletto in his interpretation of architecture, but more intense in his rendering of light and shade, was Piranesi, whose series of The Prisons is a dramatic tour de force. These fantastic and terrible ruins, in which fragile catwalks are slung between great arches of stone, create an illusion of space that verges on the monstrous. Mass and weight are so masterfully handled that the observer ends by believing in scenes that are said to have been inspired by a nightmare.With the appearance of Goya at the end of the eighteenth century, etching again approached the heights attained by Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt, Goya had the gift of creating movement that expressed thought, and his series of Los Caprichos is among the most articulate statements in any medium. But Goya probed deeper into the subconscious than his great predecessor, admitting that he wanted to make visible “forms and movements which have hitherto existed only in our imagination.” With such an aim, and possessing all the greatest qualities of the artist, it is little wonder that he created such stirring and unforgettable works in black and white. Part of his success is due to the fact that he combined etching with aquatint, a method that made possible broad masses of light and shade and increased the dramatic effect of his magnificent designs.With the introduction of lithography in the early nineteenth century, etching was ousted from popular favor. The new method was so simple that everyone fell in love with it. Ingres experimented with it in a series of portraits, but it was Delacroix who first sensed its possibilities and contributed so much to its development. The great master of lithography, however, was Daumier, who, during the course of making over four thousand lithographs for cheap journals, achieved such a command of the medium that it became a second self. Although some of his early political cartoons and his scenes of bourgeois life are among the most popular of his prints, it is in the late series of cartoons dealing with international politics that he reveals himself as one of the supreme masters of draughtsmanship and design. These pictures, so magnificently conceived in space, so silvery in tone, and so monumental in feeling, are among the very greatest achievements in black and white.Unhappily, Daumier was the exception in his use of the medium. Soon after the middle of the century it lost the favor it had gained among original artists, and etching was again taken up. This in turn, after the brief period that produced the admirable prints of Méryon, Legros, Haden, and Whistler, went into eclipse. Thereafter, the painter-etchers had their way with the graphic arts, and the combination of the painter’s approach with an almost complete disregard for the orthodox means of creating prints resulted in the limitless variety of styles and techniques which characterizes modern printmaking. The modern section of the exhibition offers a group of unusually interesting examples by Degas, Manet, Picasso, Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Cézanne, Bonnard, Gauguin, and Matisse. These prints are so far removed in style, technique, and subject matter from traditional work in the graphic arts that they may quite well confound the observer. Yet no one can deny that they have a zest, a freedom, and a sweep which are absorbing and stimulating. The spectator who is concerned with printmaking in the broad sense will welcome and applaud the spirit that produced them.The exhibition of prints will be on view in the Print Gallery through December 1.Referenced Works of ArtCover. Garotted Man. Etching from the series Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya Y Lucientes, Spanish, 1746-1828
  1. Battle of the Tritons. Engraving by Andrea Mantegna
    Italian, 1431-1506. Herschel V. Jones Collection
  2. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Woodcut from the Apocalypse set by Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471-1528
  3. Christ Healing the Sick. Etching by Rembrandt van Rijn
    Dutch, 1606-1669. Herschel V. Jones Collection
  4. Between Scylla and Charybdis. Lithograph by Honoré Daumier
    French, 1808-1879. Gift from Mrs. Charles C. Bovey
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Source: "An Exhibition of Prints," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 38, no. 24 (October, 1949): 125-132.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009