Fit to Prints
Small Bma Exhibit Spotlights How Art Once Circulated Through The Masses
Deep in the Baltimore Museum of Art's often vacant European Art wing, past the van Dyck history paintings, Rembrandt portraits, and classical nudes, hides a tiny exhibition of 28 small prints and two miniature sculptures by various artists from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Printed Sculpture, Sculpted Prints, curated by Elizabeth Rodini and a group of her undergraduate students at the Johns Hopkins University, provides a fascinating look at the way in which art was publicized, promoted, and passed around to other artists, students, and the general public in an age long before the introduction of cameras, television, and the internet.
Prior to photography, art aficionados had little way of seeing fabled works displayed in faraway museums and private collections without traveling to see them on a grand tour. The rise of the inexpensively produced and distributed print, however, allowed the public to see works that were previously unavailable to them. Today, in an age when entire museum collections are available for perusal online and camera phones instantly transmit pictures with the press of a button, it is difficult to fathom the importance of this development--a point Printed illustrates exquisitely. In the pre-photography age, artworks that were only available to the uppermost echelon of society could now be seen, in some propensity, by a more diverse audience. With the rise of popular printmaking, art was democratized.
The exhibition also examines the academic tradition of learning technique by copying artworks deemed masterpieces. Art academies controlled then-contemporary art theories, aesthetics, and techniques, and students began their training by diligently copying works by Masters. Students would then move on to copying plaster casts of the human figure, and finally to working from live models. In this way did 17th, 18th, and 19th century art academies maintain their stronghold on the way art was conceived and perceived.
Printmakers during this time didn't consider themselves as mere producers of copies for mass distribution. Rather than functioning as the Xerox machines of their day, printmakers identified with the role of sculptor. Not only was the very act of incising an image onto the impression plate a form of bas-relief sculpture, the monochromatic qualities of the medium allowed printmakers to manipulate the chiaroscuro effects of light and dark to create smoothly muscled marble creations from paper and ink alone.
Most of the traditionally academic works in Printed are engravings, but other artists in the exhibition used the highly expressive qualities of the woodcut to carve out more creative and individualized interpretations of historical sculptures. Niccolò Boldrini playfully re-imagines one of antiquity's best-known sculptures, the Laocoön--a Roman marble statue that was likely itself a copy of a Greek Hellenistic bronze--to present a comic scene of three apes wrestling with a serpent against the quaint backdrop of a rural village. Here, Printed`s exhibition materials point out, Boldrini substitutes simian figures for heroic nudes to parody the popular derogatory concept of art as the "ape of nature."
Printed's two actual sculptures--an anonymous German green marble Hercules and a French bronze after "The Rape of the Sabine Woman," standing in the room's center--are the least interesting items in the show. Although each of the diminutive sculptures relates to a corresponding work on the wall, their central placement in the one-room exhibition gives them a false sense of importance. Beautifully lit with spotlights, one is instantly drawn to the sculptures, which detracts from the real main attraction, the prints. They end up feeling like afterthoughts, and the exhibition's organizing theme is clearly argued without them.
Composed entirely of artworks from the BMA's permanent collection, Printed is even more impressive for the efforts of the art history students involved. Without the thoroughly researched supplementary materials that outline the exhibition's overarching themes of transmission, innovation, and discourse, much of Printed's timely and thought-provoking message would be lost on visitors. Alone, each print is an example of the era's stellar printmaking tradition, but when grouped together the works produce a enlightening look at art and communication. At first glance, the prints read merely as copies of greater original ideas, but each work--whether intentionally satirical or meticulously duplicated--is imbued with the hand of its artist. Prints from all over Europe conveyed classical artistic ideals and theories to the masses in a less immediate but equally important ways as YouTube videos and MySpace pages allow contemporary artists to exhibit their own creations across continents.
Unfortunately, with the star power of a the BMA's other current exhibitions, this less glamorous and highly cerebral exhibition could easily be forgotten in its tucked-away location. But if sought out, it promises an evocative and surprisingly relevant commentary on the past and present.
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