Saturday, April 2, 2011

Abnormally Attracted to Prints

I think I must be attracted to historical prints for the same reasons I love old photographs. It's the sense of historic detail they provide which I find so compelling, but then my curiosity is second only to my appetite.

Leaving my apartment just as the sky opened up, I arrived at VMFA's Pauley Center to sunshine and a warm breeze. Too bad I can't always affect that kind of climate change just by driving two miles.

"Depicting the World in the Seventeenth Century: Wenceslaus Hollar and the Art of Printmaking" was the topic of Dr. Craig Hanson's lecture and a group of print lovers had assembled to hear him speak.

It was being presented in conjunction with VMFA's exhibit "A Celebration of Print: 500 Years of Graphic Art" which celebrates the 10,000 prints Richmonder Frank Raysor donated to the museum (and hangs through May 22).

The focus was on the 17th century because that was when print culture really exploded as people sought to see and understand the bigger world.

As prints became a big deal, stalls were set up in prominent locations throughout Europe to attract collectors, the unsung heroes of art according to Hanson. How else do we peasants get to see some art except through the gifts of collectors to museums?

Hollar, born in Prague but active in England for his artistic career, was notable for his sheer output, made easier because he had a wealthy patron (and wouldn't it be a better world if that patronage system still nurtured artistic talent?) who had an entourage that also included Rubens and Van Dyck (outstanding company, indeed).

Much of Hollar's work came in the form of etchings for local history books as the gentry decided it was important to have their history documented (we don't need to document no stinkin' peasants). Hanson said that this was the emergence of historical preservation and awareness as conscious movements; making history matter for the present was a new concept.

Hollar did the illustrations for "Antiquities of Warwickshire," with text by Dugdale, a book that upped the pictorial ante from a tradition of about five per book to 200 illustrations in this one.

In a further display of virtuosity, illustrations were placed on pages with text and not on separate pages as had been the custom, despite how much easier that method had been for the printer.

In addition to maps and topographical views, Hollar pictured ecclesiastical dress as a means of preserving the traditions of the Catholic Church which had been outlawed in England. Likewise, abbeys and other formerly religious buildings were celebrated as ruins in the book.

Looking at Hollar's detailed etchings was like looking at 17th century photographs if such a thing had existed. Now that I've had my introductory class in printmaking, I can't wait to see the VMFA exhibition and explore prints over the course of 500 years.

I may want to stop by Amuse and enjoy a visit from the absinthe fairy first, but the printmaking exhibit is a celebration after all. To each her own when it comes to celebratory preferences.

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