Although the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Italian Renaissance print exhibit is located in the museum’s unglamorous basement, the presented works form a cohesive picture of how printmaking developed out of 15th century Italy – first as a means of reproduction and then as a genuine form of art. What is also apparent, but not mentioned ,is how a large part of our visual lifestyle today can be related to the development of printmaking.
In our age of pop culture and mass production, the world of the art print no longer belongs to the educated and the rich. You see them everywhere: Monets, Van Goghs, “vintage” French cigarette ads, Klimts, Eschers, Rothkos, etc. The poster store has replaced the gallery, making great works of art accessible to any who wishes to have them. But this new generation of art collectors may not know that the roots of their hobby lie in the Italian Renaissance.
The exhibit’s introduction explains to the viewer that the 20 works on display were executed using the new techniques of the time – wood and copper engraving. It becomes immediately apparent that an incredible amount of skill is required to execute a beautiful print. The first selections to really grab the viewer’s attention are several woodcuts from Marcantonio Raimondi. Although Raimondi’s prints are more often than not reproductions of works executed by Raphael, they are in no sense direct duplications. “Crouching Venus” looks like a charcoal drawing, with graceful pools of light and shadow accentuating her femininity. “The Plague of Phrygia” stands out with its emotional composition.
Ugo da Carpi’s “Descent from the Cross” is the exhibit’s first example of the chiaroscuro woodcut technique, a revolutionary method that utilizes multiple pieces of wood to produce much more drastic shades, which is why “Descent” stands out so vividly. The surrounding works rely on extremely precise etching to create the illusion of shadow and depth, but da Carpi’s chiaroscuro print almost comes off as a quatrefoil sculpture, with the central figure of Jesus eerily suspended in front of the frame.
Giuseppe Scolari’s “Dead Christ Supported by an Angel” is the last work in the exhibit and is especially striking because of his use of negative space. He employs white instead of black as his figural outlines, giving the work not only the feeling of a photographic negative, but also a sculptural quality. It is extremely reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s “Pieta,” which would have been instantly recognized by the contemporary viewer.
With the explosion of printmaking came the diffusion of art into every area of life, and this tradition carries through today. Immortal works of Rembrandt and Warhol and Titian can be found on T-shirts, postcards and in poster stores. The accessibility of art owes its proliferation to the phenomenon of Italian Renaissance printmaking. This exhibit is not only a wonderful display of a brilliant medium; it is representative of one of the most important progressions of popular art.