In presenting such a specific form of printmaking through such a narrow time period, “Grand Scale” struggles with the curse of repetition. Employing a two-room gallery space seems unnecessary for such a narrow genre and style of work. Indeed, the presentation of two different artistic renderings of the “View of Venice” detracts from the individual power of each piece. Surely the woodcuts are remarkable for their detail and skill, from Titian’s defecating dog in the print “Submersion of Pharoh’s Army in the Red Sea” to the miraculous precision in the decoration of “The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I,” yet the exhibition would have benefitted from a more selective collection of the works.
“Grand Scale” recalls the 2007 Clark Art Institute exhibition in Williamstown, MA, “Claude Lorrain: The Painter as Draftsman” for its large array of black-and-white prints, and the artists highlighted in the collection display drafting techniques comparable to those employed by Lorraine.
Organized by the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, “Grand Scale” contains 47 large-format woodcut prints from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, including prints from German, Italia, and Netherlandish artists such as Peter Paul Reubens and Andrea Andreani.
Last Tuesday, Suzanne Boorsch, Yale’s Robert L. Solley Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, who organized the exhibition at Yale, led a special press preview through the gallery to introduce the prints.
The collection begins with Italian painter and printmaker Jacopo de’ Barbari’s “View of Venice,” a nine by four foot aerial view of the city, that was formed in the 1500’s with six separate wood blocks. The view is a remarkably accurate portrayal of the city, and includes mythical renderings of the gods Mars and Neptune.
To the left of the gallery entrance is the exhibition’s second “View of Venice,” its oldest print, by Erhard Reuwich in 1486. This print is encased in glass and presents an eye-level interpretation of the city.
Reuwich’s “View”, like all the prints in the exhibition, was created in pieces by separate wood blocks, which were then juxtaposed for their final display in European palazzos and estates. Titian’s “Submersion of Pharoh’s Army in the Red Sea,” one of the larger works in the exhibition, was produced by twelve separate blocks from 1513-1516. Because of this piecemeal technique, and the versatility of the wooden blocks, the designs could be replicated in large numbers and circulated easily, always retaining their original integrity. This ease of circulation exactly the principle that Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, took advantage of in his commissioning of “The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I,” known in German as “The Arch of Honor,” which is the focal point of Boorscht’s exhibition.
The Arch, which stands over 11 feet tall, is displayed horizontally in the first gallery room, in a custom-made glass case, because it was too large to be displayed on the Gallery’s wall. Created by a collaboration of artists, including Albrecht Dürer, the arch was used by Maximilian as a sort of funerary tomb, to propagate his greatness throughout Europe. The impeccable detail and creativity of the artists is truly remarkable, from the doves of piece along the arch’s turrets to the cats and turtles along the ground, mixed with religious symbolism throughout. The emperor himself is portrayed in the top tablet, sitting on a leaf of papyrus and supported by a lion and a bull, ancient symbols for courage and power.
Believing that the prints, which could be recreated and spread to his posterity far and wide, were the best form of a memorial to himself, Maximilian commissioned an original set of three prints from 192 woodcut blocks and 18 plates. The work stands as the pinnacle of printmaking as art, and according to Boorsch “underscores Maximilian’s deep understanding of the power of print as propaganda.”
Maximilian’s “Triumphal Arch” itself may have been inspired by Barbari’s “View of Venice,” a notable fact which the exhibition fails to include, although the two prints stand less than twenty feet apart from each other in the gallery space.
The magnificence and variety that characterize the exhibition’s first gallery space, however, fails to carry into the second room, and the collection would perhaps have benefitted by stopping after Maximilian’s “Arch,” leaving viewers pondering the immense magnificence of such a work. This second space contains some of Yale’s own pieces, yet lacks the triumph that “Arch” brings to the first half of the exhibition. In fact, the second space seems too large for the less than 20 prints that comprise its collection, and there is no one focus piece to draw viewers in.
While Andrea Andreani’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law” is an excellent example of the development of the chiaroscuro style of woodcut, which employs light and dark in two different printing blocks, it may have been even more powerful if presented beside a contrasting Titian work from the earlier period of woodcuts.
“Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Durer and Titian,” like its name suggests, is remarkable for the sheer size of its prints and the masterful attention to detail present in each colossal piece, but the exhibition falters in its lack of range. This shortcoming is more an issue of the nature of the woodcut, rather than a shortcoming of the exhibition’s organizers. Despite this shortcoming, “Grand Scale” is worth seeing if only for Maximilian’s great piece of triumphal glory.
This Wednesday at 12:20, Larry Silver, Farquhar Professor of Art History at The University of Pennsylvania, who was one of the coordinators of the exhibition, will speak at the Yale University Gallery in a talk entitled “Concerning the Origins of the Big Print.”
The exhibition will be on view through November 30.