Susan Dackerman makes a somewhat unexpected art historian as she leads a tour with polished ease through the Painted Prints show at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
No stuffy gray eminence here: She's a model of museum chic, wearing a black pant suit, white blouse and her tightly curled black hair in a gamin cut. She wears her scholarship just as lightly.
She's the curator of the show Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern & Baroque Engravings, Etchings & Woodcuts, to give the exhibition its full title. It's gotten rave reviews.
The Sun said it was "serious and ambitious and scholarly - and visually intriguing in delightfully unexpected ways." The Washington Post called it "a truly landmark show" and said it "takes some of the most famous, pioneering works of the printmaker's art and gives us a whole new view of them."
Briefly, art historians and critics have generally thought of colored prints as adulterations of the pure black and white original, compromised popular versions of high art. Dackerman's show challenges that conception.
"The traditional view of art history is a pretty elitist one," Dackerman, 38, says, in a conversation after the tour ends. "It's the art that's been made for the important patrons that's been given the greatest amount of attention, the art that was made for the popes, the art that was made for the kings.
"And so the art that was made for ordinary everyday uses, like playing cards and wall calendars and wall decoration, or devotional objects, broadsheets, weren't given that much attention, because all the attention was given to those higher art forms."
The Formschneider, the woodblock cutter; Kartenmaler, the card painter; Briefmaler, the print colorist; Illuminist, the illuminator; and Etzmaler, the etching painter, all make their appearance in her essay in the show's catalog.
"It was just a matter of willingness to look at them differently and not discount them out of hand as secondary or not important," Dackerman says. "I think because scholars weren't so interested in prints that were painted, they weren't so interested in the people who painted them."
`Who else have we left out?'
The Formschneider, in fact, actually cut the wood blocks for prints, even from Albrecht Durer drawings. Playing cards, calendars, wall decorations, devotional objects and broadsheets all make it into Dackerman's exhibition.
"We're now looking at those more popular art forms and finding them worthy of scrutiny. And that's a fairly new phenomenon, of the last 20 years really."
She thinks that viewpoint came out of feminist art theory. In the 1970s, she says, feminist art scholars objected to the lack of attention paid to works by women artists. "I think that generation of feminist art historians from the '70s really broke down the canon."
So are you building a new one?
"No. In fact I wouldn't want to build a new canon, but to open up the discourse to a much broader range of objects. ... I think that what feminist art historians have taught us is that if we've left out the women artists, who else have we left out? Well, we left out the colored print.
"And so when I saw them, having had that kind of education, I was willing to think, `Oh! Why have they been left out? Why shouldn't they have been part of the mainstream?'
"As it turns out from the visual and archival evidence, in fact they were part of the mainstream in the 16th century. We've put them on the sidelines in the 20th century."
She tells the art group from Howard County that the BMA show had its genesis five or six years ago at an art fair in New York when she saw a group of hand-colored Renaissance engravings that a German dealer had brought to New York to sell.
She was intrigued.
"As a print curator I was used to seeing prints as black lines printed on white paper, whether a woodcut, engraving or etching," she says. "That was the way I had been taught Renaissance prints should look."
An intellectual journey
Dackerman grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island. She went to Vassar College and Bryn Mawr, where she earned a doctorate in 1995. She wrote her dissertation on 16th-century Northern Renaissance prints.
"I decided to do a little research and find out what I could about [colored prints]," she says. Scholars knew they existed, but little research had been done on them.
"I couldn't find anything that had been written on them to tell me who did the painting, why were they painted, when were they painted, how often they were colored."
Dackerman was launched on an intellectual - and international - journey that would result in the Painted Prints show.