Color art fans happy with this discovery

BMA show demonstrates, with careful scholarship, that Renaissance prints came in full, living color


October 06, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | By Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The show of hand-painted prints that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art is exactly the kind of exhibition museums are supposed to mount when they're doing their job right: thoughtful, carefully prepared visual essays that introduce innovative ideas and suggest new ways of understanding art.

Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings & Woodcuts is a mouthful of an exhibition that will never be confused with the seemingly ubiquitous blockbuster extravaganzas designed to produce box-office revenue rather than tell us something new.

Instead, this show of some 100 rare works from European and American museums is serious and ambitious and scholarly -- and visually intriguing in delightfully unexpected ways. And if that weren't enough, it also makes art history news by showing, for the first time, that color, to whose absence we've long become accustomed in old German and Dutch prints, was actually a vital part of the technological revolution in printmaking that was ushered in by Gutenberg's invention of movable type.

That's quite an accomplishment, given that northern Renaissance prints aren't usually the kind of artwork that sends crowds stampeding through a museum's doors.

On the contrary, many people may still wonder what folks were thinking back when Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was considered the greatest German artist of his age. How, we ask, could art lovers abide all those crabby, black-and-white pictures full of gnarly gothic curlicues and illegible microscopic scrawls?

Colors preferred

To modern viewers, drilled by advertising and a ubiquitous pop culture to interpret images at a glance, reading a Durer print is a little like taking the SAT the day after the big blowout frat party: You've got to get up bright and early in the morning, eat a good breakfast and then really work hard at it.

Looking at Durer, I almost can't help thinking: How about a little color? I mean, lighten up, man. How about a little relief from all that relentless monochromatic virtuosity that (maybe) was tolerable during the dark ages before color TV but now seems so dreadful I just want to zap the remote and go straight to Thomas Kinkade's pastel paradise?

Mercifully, the BMA confronts the difficulty head on in this show: Because the big news here is that people in Durer's time did, it turns out, prefer their pictures in bright, lively, easy-to-read colors, just as we do today. And whenever they could get them, they were willing to pay premium prices for them as well.

In fact, it wasn't just Durer's prints, though his are by far the best-known, but every kind of printed image of the period -- from small stenciled woodcuts stamped out by the thousands to be given away to pilgrims or pasted inside prayer books, to elaborate royal commissions embellished with costly gold and silver inks -- all were considered more pleasing and valuable when rendered in color.

That, in a nutshell, is the whole point of this show. It might seem obvious until you realize that, over the last 500 years, people have become so used to seeing these works as dreary monochromes that the idea that Renaissance audiences actually admired and enjoyed them in color is little short of a revelation.

Details revealed

Indeed, it's the kind of shock we would expect if we were suddenly able to see an ancient Greek statue like the Venus de Milo all tarted up in the bright colors she was originally painted in, rather than as the pale, white marble apparition history has left us 2,500 years later.

Take, for example, Durer's woodcut of the "Flight into Egypt" from the bound edition of his Life of the Virgin, published in 1511. The BMA show presents both the black-and-white and hand-painted color versions of this traditional religious subject, and the difference is like -- well, like the difference between a modern color TV and an ancient black-and-white set.

In the black-and-white version, the massive renderings of realistic detail and the illusion of volume through intricate cross-hatching for which Durer was famous nearly overwhelm the eye, lending the print such a sense of weight and density you almost don't know where to begin looking. (Five centuries of connoisseurship have made the task easier for art historians and museum professionals, but woe betide the generation that was raised on Marvel comic books.)

In Durer's color version, by contrast, the figures of Mary and Joseph are sharply outlined in luminous red, blue, yellow and violet hues, drawing the eye immediately to the center of the picture. Dramatic details, such as the figure of a deer in the woods behind the Holy Family and a chorus of ecstatic angels hovering overhead, are clearly distinguishable through the juxtaposition of complementary colors.

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