Seeing color's full beauty

BMA exhibit awes British curator

November 07, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Mark McDonald peered closely at the 15th-century hand-colored print of St. Jerome by Albrecht Durer, then examined the black-and-white version of the same work hanging next to it. McDonald wanted to get a good look; after all, he'd traveled across an ocean to see them side by side.

An art historian and curator at the British Museum, McDonald has spent a lifetime specializing in prints made during the 15th and 16th centuries - the great Age of Discovery. And the works he traveled to see this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art's new show Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color, are among the rarest and most beautiful examples of their type in the world.

"This is possibly one of the most important print shows in the last 20 years," the curator said earlier this week as he strolled through the galleries. "It's a completely new and fresh subject, and I'm quite stunned by it. Actually, I'm bowled over by it."

The BMA show, put together by prints and drawings curator Susan Dackerman, has created quite a stir in the art world. As a result of meticulous research in historical archives, Dackerman has presented an astonishing thesis: that printed images, which first became widely popular during the 15th and 16th centuries, were from the start not only made in black and white, but also in brilliantly colored versions that until now have remained largely unknown.

Revelation offers many examples of such colored prints side-by-side with their monochrome counterparts, and, since it opened two weeks ago, has attracted curators and print-lovers from across the country.

But for McDonald, the BMA show holds a particular attraction beyond its groundbreaking revelations about the history of color printmaking.

As director of the Columbus Print Collection Project at the British Museum, McDonald is working on an ambitious project to reconstruct the fabulous collection that once belonged to Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), son of the Italian explorer who discovered the New World for Spain.

Showered with royal favor as a result of his father's exploits, Ferdinand amassed some 40,000 prints during his lifetime. And McDonald thinks some of the hand-painted prints in the BMA show may well have once been part of Columbus' collection. If so, they would throw new light on what has long been an art-historical mystery.

"The inventories that we have of Columbus' collection say some of his prints were colored," McDonald explained. "But until now, we knew almost nothing about how they were colored or by whom.

"Prints have been sort of shortchanged in our day as the poor cousins of the art world. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, there is every indication that prints were considered of equal status as paintings. By showing prints as rare, refined, valuable objects, this exhibition is opening up whole new areas in print studies, collecting and works on paper. That's important."

McDonald, 37, is a wiry, youthful-looking Australian native whose sheer enthusiasm for his subject seems to propel him through the BMA galleries. He stopped for a moment before beloved prints by Durer, Cranach and Burgkmair and took in more than most people would learn in a graduate-level seminar on the work, then dashed across the room to the next masterpiece that caught his eye.

Pausing in front of Hans Burgkmair's 1508 colored print of Emperor Maximilian I on horseback, for example, McDonald was almost at a loss for words in expressing his awe and admiration.

"In this work, the color was applied by Burgkmair himself, so it's a visceral statement of an artist actually exploring a completely new technique," he said. "Burgkmair is a groundbreaking German printmaker - he actually started off in color printmaking - so this print is a fine example of him seeing where color can go, where color can take him as an artist.

"In prints made subsequent to this one, like those two over there [pointing to Burgkmair's Virgin and Child Under a Round Arch and a second Maximilian portrait], it's actually all thought out already as a conclusion from this earlier careful experiment. It's beautiful, isn't it? Extraordinary."

Another favorite object is a woodcut print by an unidentified artist that was used as a stencil to color a large image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows.

"I don't think there's another object like it in the entire world," McDonald said. "It's a 15th-century French print, and it shows how the artist actually applied the colors to an image - it's a very rare example of the printmaker's process of coloring prints from a master design.

"It also indicates the existence of a major aspect of the printmaking then that made prints that were just huge. For example, if you look at this side, at Christ's arm, it's five inches long. That means the total image size must have been at least 2 meters by 2, I'm sure. So it was a vast piece. And because it was so large, they've all been thrown away or been destroyed over time. This is all that's left to give us a small insight into a vanished industry.

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