Monday, February 23, 2009

The Nocturne in Printmaking

by Jeanne Rosen

"The Nocturne in Printmaking"
Saint Louis Art Museum, Gallery 321, St. Louis, Missouri
December 19, 2008–March 8, 2009

Have you ever wondered if a black and white print on paper could match the same kind of aesthetic experience that a well painted canvas can? Among the prints currently on display in gallery 321 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, I found myself amazed at the depth of skill involved in the medium of printmaking, and the rich, lush images that have resulted.

Printmaking is a multi-layered process. The type of printmaking in this show involves a metal plate, incising and burnishing tools, ink, paper and a press. There are several kinds of incising techniques; drypoint, etching, engraving and mezzotint. Unlike a painting, once a plate has been prepared and inked by the artist, prints are pulled. This pattern can be repeated over and over again using the same plate, creating “multiples” of the print.

Of the 11 works on paper in "The Nocturne in Printmaking," an assortment of these techniques are on display and presented in somewhat of a brief history of printmaking. Beginning with a work in the early 17th century, Hendrick Goudt's engraving Ceres Seeking Her Daughter, 1610, one is immediately struck by the detail this medium affords. It is the beautifully illustrated story of the mythological Ceres searching for her kidnapped daughter. Exhibition Curator Eric Lutz points out that Goudt was the first to layer lines, "creating textures and atmospheric depths in darkness." Apparently, Goudt's achievements with black tone influenced Rembrandt (his Entombment hangs directly to the right), who is world-renowned for his masterful etchings.

Richard Earlom, English, 1743–1822; A Blacksmith’s Shop, 1771; mezzotint; image: 23 ¾"x 17", sheet (trimmed): 24 5/16"x 17 5/16"; Saint Louis Art Museum, The Sidney S. and Sadie Cohen Print Purchase Fund 15:2007.

The next work is A Blacksmith's Shop, 1771 by Richard Earlom after a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. This large, poster sized mezzotint is truly the show stopper. One is compelled to look closely at the soft, dark expanses that turn into the muscular forms of the laborers, the drapery of 18th century garments, and the aging rafters of an old church that's become home to a blacksmith's shop. The eye is drawn to the light emanating from the center of the work where the anvil bears down on molten iron, sending sparks flying, while illuminating the other figures in the scene, like the beautifully rendered full-figured portrait of a man in the right foreground. The amount of information in this work is astounding.

Even though the aforementioned artwork vies for being the most gorgeous piece in the show, the smaller, unassuming The Lonely Tower, 1878-79, by Samuel Palmer, is profoundly appealing. It reads like a children's bedtime story visually but has the depth of parable with its crumbling tower at the apex of the picture plane, full of wisdom, sharing its humble light on the shepherds below. A crescent moon hangs low on the horizon, small stars decorate the sky. It’s a perfectly peaceful night, yet so much is going on. Groups of both humans and animals charged with their duties; perform them faithfully and in complete security.

Samuel Palmer, English, 1805–1881; The Lonely Tower, 1878–79; etching; plate: 7 3/8"x9 7/8", sheet: 81/4"x 10 15/16"; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Katherine Tillery, Mr. and Mrs. Jack C. Taylor, and Mr. and Mrs. Eugene F. Williams Jr. through the Art Enrichment Fund; and funds given by the Anne L. Lehmann Charitable Trust 36:2005.

The common theme that pulls the works in this show together is nighttime, when activities of the day are supposed to desist, when rest and cessation of labor is supposed to come. But the opposite is true, whether the characters are searching for something, performing as protectors or manual laborers, they all act under the cloak of darkness. Yet the darkness isn’t foreboding or ominous, rather it works in harmony with the light this is always trying to break through.

Beyond the remaining Romantic works, the balance of the show is made up of prints by modern American artists Edward Hopper and Martin Lewis. These prints consist of entirely different subjects than what came before; these are mostly urban, industrialscapes that are lonely, spare, even a little sad. They truly reflect the dilemma of modern life. They stand in stark contrast to the Romantic tensions of life, death, ecstasy, damnation, love and punishment.

The small space of the gallery adds to the intimacy one has with the works. In wanting to look closely at the prints, I found the gallery to be a comfortable size, it had just the right amount of pictures for the space, rather than overwhelming me with too much to see.

Like many shows I’ve seen recently in this small gallery space, "The Nocturne in Printmaking" is another thoughtful, enlightening opportunity to see some of the lesser known treasures of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection. The works featured in these shows have been insightfully pulled together to both instruct and to provide the aesthetic experience that great works of art, whatever their medium, are so capable of doing.

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Jeanne Rosen earned her BA in Art History and MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.
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"The Nocturne in Printmaking" remains on view through March 8, 2009. The Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. 314/721-0072. Free & open to the public Tuesday-Sunday.

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