Now in Color
The BMA makes a new discovery about the Old Masters
The exhibit sheds light--and many colors--on this little-studied aspect of print history, and in doing so raises a spectrum of questions. Who colored these Old Master prints, and when did they do it? Were they admired as artworks in their own right, or were they disdained as the equivalent of Ted Turner colorizing Citizen Kane? And why haven't painted prints appeared on the academic radar screen until now?
That's a lot of material for any exhibit, but this show manages to handle its didactic concerns with ease. Susan Dackerman, the BMA's curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, lets you share in her scholarly sleuthing. Through her detective work and that of associate paper conservator Thomas Primeau, the exhibit is able to demonstrate that many prints made in Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th through 17th centuries were hand-colored soon after they were originally made and not, as had often been assumed, by market-conscious dealers in the 19th century. The effect of this revelation is illustrated by a viewer-friendly installation that largely relies on side-by-side pairings of black-and-white prints owned by the BMA and colored versions mostly borrowed from other collections.
You're also encouraged to contemplate what is meant by artistic originality. Certainly, a number of these hand-colored prints are beautifully executed and worthy of admiration in their own right, which explains why some did survive (if quietly) in connoisseurs' collections. But others were colored with stencils in what amounted to a mass-production process aimed at collectors with smaller budgets. Many of these low-cost colored prints were intended for daily use, hung on the walls of houses, taverns, and brothels. In some of the exhibited examples, the artisans make seemingly arbitrary color choices and have trouble keeping their colors within the lines. Because such prints were so commonly used, the curators explain, they largely deteriorated and disappeared from households and, eventually, from the art-historical record.
The exhibit is anchored by 27 pairs of prints by the always-admired Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whose subtle effects in black and white prompted some of his contemporaries, such as the writer Erasmus, to criticize the hand-coloring of his prints. Well, not everybody listened to Erasmus, though you've got to admit he had a valid point.
Look at Dürer's woodcut "Christ Presented to the People," and its drama comes across just fine in black and white. All the same, there's also much to admire in the unknown artisan's hand-colored version that hangs next to it. Christ's red cloak makes him the compositional star attraction as he sorrowfully stands atop a short flight of steps. The red drops of blood sprinkled across his pale body are a graphic testament to his torture prior to crucifixion. And people gathered in front of the steps wear colorful flowing garments, emphasizing that the town has turned out fashionably for the show.
Look too at the zones of pink and green used to color the stone steps and walls of the building before which Christ stands. Those colors give an architectural sense of Italian marble. Perhaps most tellingly, the colors used in depicting the town and the hills glimpsed in the distance make the landscape seem deeper than in the black-and-white version.
The exhibit's literal highlight is also by Dürer: the 12-foot-high "Triumphal Arch," consisting of 192 linked prints celebrating the glorious deeds of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The archlike design operates on the visual overload theory that there can't be too many crowded battles and festive events in which Maximilian is the hero. By applying color to battle flags, coats of arms, classical-style columns, and other architectural details, colorists have made a busy picture even busier and, in the bargain, crafted some very expensive wallpaper.
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