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Rembrandt to Picasso: Five Centuries of European Works on Paper

DATES Friday, June 21, 2019 through Sunday, October 13, 2019
  • Rembrandt to Picasso: Five Centuries of European Works on Paper
    Working on paper, artists have captured visible and imagined worlds, developed poses and compositions, experimented with materials and techniques, and expressed their personal and political beliefs. From pastels and pencil sketches to woodcuts and etchings, the drawings and prints in this exhibition convey an intimate sense of the artist’s hand.

    In four broad chronological sections spanning the early sixteenth through the early twentieth century, Rembrandt to Picasso highlights more than a hundred European works on paper from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, many presented here for the first time in decades. The exhibition explores the roles of drawing and printmaking within individual artistic practices and across broader visual culture, and encompasses a variety of creative modes, from studies to finished compositions, and a range of genres, including portraiture, landscape, satire, and abstraction. This selection features some of the Museum’s most treasured objects, including exceptional nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works that reveal the institution’s early commitment to modern art.

    Although one of the Museum’s first purchases, in 1900, was a group of watercolors by James Tissot, its paper holdings initially consisted primarily of prints, which it began to acquire in the first decade of the twentieth century. Over the years, through gifts and purchases, the Museum built a collection of European prints and drawings that reflects the Western canon. It made key acquisitions by Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, and Käthe Kollwitz, but women artists and artists of color are significantly underrepresented in the European art collection.

    This stark imbalance exposes the cultural conditions under which visual art was historically made and validated in Europe, as well as the resulting collecting opportunities and practices that prevailed through much of the twentieth century at art institutions, including this one. For all the beauty, innovation, and cultural insights of the works on view, they reflect only a partial history. In the current moment, some may even prompt questions about whether creative achievements can or should be assessed separately from an artist’s beliefs or behaviors, and from the historical milieu that shaped them.

    In conjunction with the adjacent exhibition One: Titus Kaphar, excerpts from a conversation with the contemporary artist Titus Kaphar accompany selected works here.

    Rembrandt to Picasso: Five Centuries of European Works on Paper is curated by Lisa Small, Senior Curator, European Art, Brooklyn Museum. Special thanks to Shea Spiller, Curatorial Assistant, Arts of the Americas and Europe; and Tara Contractor and Jai Imbrey, Researchers.
  • The Rise of Paper and Print Culture
    Papermaking was invented in China in the second century B.C.E., and by the twelfth century the technology had spread, by way of the Islamic world, to Europe. There, paper documents soon became common in banking, trade, law, and education, although the ancient, more expensive material of parchment was still used and prized for its durability. Parchment (also called vellum)—made of scraped, dried, and stretched animal skin—was the support artists used most often before the fifteenth century for sketches and preparatory drawings, as well as for religious manuscript paintings.

    Paper’s increased availability in fifteenth-century Europe coincided with not only the revolutionary development of movable type but also the advent of printed images: first woodcuts, then engravings, and, by the early sixteenth century, etchings. Printmaking technologies made it possible to create multiple images that could be widely circulated and consumed. “Print culture,” the explosion of these new reproductive techniques and their global dissemination of scientific, religious, political, and artistic knowledge, was as profoundly transformative in the early modern era as the Internet would be in the late twentieth century.

    Prints disrupted the formerly exclusive relationship between patron and artist, creating an expanded market that served buyers with a range of interests and incomes. Many artists explored the expressive possibilities of prints, using them, as they did drawings, for thematic and technical experimentation and innovation. At the same time, prints—which encompassed invented images and reproductions of existing paintings—also gave rise to new and persistent questions around concepts of originality and authorship.
  • Satires and Visions
    The Enlightenment was a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment in the eighteenth century, embracing social reform, scientific and empirical knowledge, and the political and economic philosophies that would give rise to democracy and modern capitalism. For its proponents, the Enlightenment represented the triumph of reason and rationalism over tradition and superstition. Some of the most influential artworks of this era responded in different ways to Enlightenment ideologies.

    By the eighteenth century, Europe was awash in printed images that delighted large, diverse, and eager audiences. On view in shopwindows or collected by connoisseurs for private study, prints shaped and reflected current societal tastes, customs, and beliefs. Satire, for example, flourished as an artistic mode in prints that were in tune with the critical spirit of the age. William Hogarth’s widely distributed engravings offered moralizing commentary on the grim realities of London’s urban poor, and became part of the discourse around reform. Hogarth’s Italian contemporary, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, created an imposing series of etchings depicting vast imaginary prisons—disturbing visions of a supposedly rational system that evoke profound individual alienation.

    At the end of the eighteenth century, Francisco Goya produced a portfolio of satiric etchings called Los Caprichos that confronted the Enlightenment belief in reason as the key to human progress. His powerful prints exposed the vices, follies, and hypocrisies of a society mired in superstition and corruption, using nightmarish and fantastical imagery. By the early nineteenth century, other artists began to question the Enlightenment notion that the universe was objectively knowable and controllable and instead embraced the subjectivity and emotion of Romanticism, the first major artistic movement of the modern age. William Blake’s visionary, intensely personal biblical prints and drawings and Philipp Otto Runge’s cycle of etchings meant to reveal the divinity manifest in nature are exemplars of the movement.
  • Innovation and Revival
    Technical innovations and revivals, creative exploration in all mediums, and a growing market for all kinds of drawn and printed images helped define the nineteenth-century art world. The last years of the eighteenth century witnessed the invention of lithography, a process in which a special crayon is employed to draw directly on a polished stone, which can be used to print an unlimited number of images. Artists in the first half of the nineteenth century were attracted to the technique’s ability to immediately capture their own drawings in a range of tones and textures. It was also an ideal method to create illustrations for popular journals and newspapers. Topical political and social caricatures by Honoré Daumier and others were produced as lithographs and circulated in record numbers.

    By midcentury, however, the widespread commercial applications of lithography had damaged its reputation as an artistic practice. As an alternative to lithography and another new reproductive technology—photography—many artists rediscovered the older technique of etching, which was associated with the revered seventeenth-century “painter-printmaker” Rembrandt. Etching’s sketchy, spontaneous effects resonated with current stylistic innovations in painting, drawing, and pastel, captivating artists affiliated with the Realist and Impressionist movements. This so-called etching revival, promoted by publishers and critics who likened the process to drawing, encompassed the work of Camille Corot, Édouard Manet, and Edgar Degas, who all experimented with composition and technique in the medium, as well as in drawings and watercolors.
    In the 1880s interest in the financial and creative potential of lithography reemerged. Artists worked with professional printers to translate their motifs into color lithographs that were intended to appeal to new buyers and connoisseurs alike. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s and Pierre Bonnard’s artistically innovative lithographs, featuring fluid contours, skewed perspectives, and bold shapes, are among the most abstracted images of the nineteenth century.
  • Modern Expressions
    Many European artists in the later nineteenth century began to turn away from the naturalism that characterized Realist and Impressionist imagery. From the enigmatic visions of Odilon Redon to Édouard Vuillard’s patterned interiors, there was an affinity for more abstracted visual languages meant to express emotion or to explore the aesthetic possibilities of color and form. As the twentieth century dawned, a new generation was galvanized by the gestural lines, brash colors, and construction of space through form that they saw in the works of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne. The radical new style of Expressionism reveals the influence of these disruptive pictorial ideas in the early twentieth century. Artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Erich Heckel, and Käthe Kollwitz used a graphic vocabulary of angular, distorted forms along with vivid color to communicate meaning in what they felt was a more forceful and authentic manner.

    Spirituality, the trauma of war, psychological portraits, and the body—particularly the female nude—were common themes not only in the work of Expressionists, but throughout early twentieth-century modernism. African and South Pacific art also influenced many European artists, who encountered it in ethnographic museums, where it had been acquired through colonial conquests, or during their own expeditions.

    While etching and lithography continued to be important creative mediums, artists also turned back to the oldest form of printmaking: the woodcut. In Germany this technique was particularly associated with medieval wood carving and the compelling images of Albrecht Dürer. The rough-hewn, raw graphic effects that could be achieved in woodcut made it, for many avant-garde artists, the ideal medium to convey emotional immediacy.
  • Woodcut and Engraving
    The earliest print technique to develop in Europe was woodcut, dating from about 1400. A woodcut is made by carving a design into a wood surface, inking the surface of the woodblock, and transferring it onto paper. Woodcuts were produced as independent images and, after movable type was introduced in Germany about 1450, as illustrations in printed books. In the technique’s earliest decades, one person typically created the design and a different, highly proficient craftsperson carved the woodblock.

    For engraving, which also emerged in the fifteenth century, a tool called a burin is used to incise lines into a copper plate. The plate’s surface is inked and then wiped clean so that only the ink in the engraved lines gets transferred onto paper in the press. Many artists known for their engravings, such as Albrecht Dürer, were trained as goldsmiths and therefore skilled at incising lines on metal, so it is believed that they cut their copper plates themselves.
  • Etching
    The first etchings in Europe appeared around the beginning of the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century, etching had become the print technique most favored by artists. In this process, an acid-resistant ground is applied to a metal plate and an etching needle is used to draw the design through the ground. The plate is immersed in acid, which eats away the areas of exposed metal. As in engraving, when the plate is inked and wiped, only the ink in the acid-bitten lines is printed. Because the needle can be handled with relative ease to create free and sketchy lines, etchings are the prints that most resemble drawings.

    Drypoint and aquatint are techniques related to etching. In drypoint, the design is incised directly into the metal plate, without any ground, leaving a slightly ragged edge to the lines. The ragged edges hold more ink, producing a distinctive velvety look in the printed image. In aquatint, fine particles of acid-resistant material, such as powdered rosin, are adhered to the plate by heating. The acid bath bites the metal plate around the rosin granules, producing a pattern that creates a tonal, washlike effect when printed.
  • Lithography
    The lithography process is based on the fact that oil and water repel each other. First, a drawing is made directly on a hard, flat surface (originally limestone) using an oil-based crayon or other similarly greasy medium. Next, a chemical solution is applied to the stone to fix the drawing. The stone is then washed with water, and an oil-based ink is applied to the surface. The oily ink adheres to the greasy drawn areas but is repelled by the areas of wet stone. When paper is laid over the surface and run through a press, only the drawing, in reverse, is transferred to the paper.

    Color lithography requires a different stone for each color, and the same sheet must be aligned precisely each time the stones are pressed. In black and white or in color, lithography produces distinctive tonal effects and textures. The printing process was readily mechanized, and an unlimited number of identical images could be pulled from the same stone.

    This technique appealed to artists because it allowed them to draw with the same ease as when working directly on paper. Some were more involved with the actual printing, while others limited their contribution to the initial drawing. Composing directly on the stone could be challenging, since the image had to be drawn in reverse of how the artist meant it to appear in its final form. Eventually, some artists began to execute their drawings on transfer paper, which is coated with a water-soluble material such as gum arabic. Once dampened, the paper transfers a mirror image of the drawing onto the stone. The image is then printed from the stone in the intended orientation.
  • May 17, 2019 On view June 21–October 13, 2019

    Showcasing the breadth of the Brooklyn Museum’s exceptional works on paper collection, Rembrandt to Picasso: Five Centuries of European Works on Paper highlights more than one hundred European prints and drawings, pairing masterworks by renowned artists such as William Blake, Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Goya, and Vincent van Gogh with lesser known, rarely seen drawings, prints, and watercolors. Works on view feature intimate portraits, biting social satire, fantastical visions, vivid landscapes, and more, and are organized into four broad chronological sections spanning the early sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries. The exhibition is presented in conjunction with One: Titus Kaphar, which examines and recasts the individuals and histories that are often marginalized throughout Western art. This strategic pairing is part of the Brooklyn Museum’s focused commitment to presenting exhibitions that challenge how history is told through art, and to confronting the biases traditionally engrained in these narratives. In an effort to encourage further conversation between the two exhibitions, commentary and reflections by Kaphar will accompany selected works on paper in Rembrandt to Picasso, helping to shift the viewer’s gaze and to question who had a voice in the past—and who has a voice in the present. Rembrandt to Picasso: Five Centuries of European Works on Paper is curated by Lisa Small, Senior Curator, European Art, Brooklyn Museum, and is on view from June 21 through October 13, 2019.

    “There is an intimacy and immediacy to works on paper that seems to bring us nearest to an artist’s vision and process,” explains Lisa Small. “I’m thrilled for our audiences to have close-looking encounters with these highlights from Brooklyn’s extensive collection of European works on paper, which are rarely exhibited because of light-sensitivity. These prints and drawings are examples of extraordinary technical achievement and vivid artistic experimentation, but they also offer an opportunity to explore compelling and provocative themes that continue to resonate today.”

    The exhibition begins by exploring the rise of paper and print culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With paper’s increased availability and the advent of printed images—first through woodcuts and engravings, then etchings—it became possible to create multiple images that could be widely circulated and consumed. This gave rise to an expanded market for works on paper and expressive possibilities for artists like Albrecht Dürer, whose technical skill and dramatic manipulation of the medium elevated printmaking to an independent art form. A series of works by Dürer, including a large-scale, eight-part woodcut print, are on view in this section, alongside works by Rembrandt van Rijn and Wenceslaus Hollar.

    The second section highlights the work of artists who were active during the Enlightenment, an era that embraced intellectual and social reforms over tradition and superstition. Artists in the eighteenth century used printmaking to offer commentary on the world around them. Two prints by British artist William Hogarth are on view in this section: Gin Lane and Beer Street, both from 1751. Hogarth’s widely distributed satirical engravings memorialized the grim realities of London’s urban poor, and became part of the impetus for reform efforts. At the turn of the century, artists like Francisco Goya and William Blake began to question Enlightenment ideas of reason and rationalism and instead embraced the subjectivity and emotion of Romanticism, the first major artistic movement of the modern age. A number of highlights from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection are included here, including Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (1803–5), a group of etchings from one of Francisco Goya’s most acclaimed series, Los Caprichos (The Caprices) (1797–98), and two etchings from Philipp Otto Runge’s rare cycle Times of Day (1803–5), which expressed the harmony of the universe through symbolism and allegory.

    The exhibition’s final two sections explore the ways in which technical innovations and modern aesthetic movements shaped artists’ work. The late eighteenth century saw the invention of lithography, which allowed artists like Eugène Delacroix, Honoré Daumier, and Théodore Géricault to immediately capture their own drawings in a range of tones and textures. Later, a revival of the more painterly, stylistic use of etchings encouraged artists such as Camille Corot, Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas to use the medium, as well as graphite, watercolor, and pastel, as a vehicle for compositional and technical experimentation. Delicate works in color appear in this section, including Édouard Manet’s The Equestrienne (L'Amazone) (1875–76) and Woman Drying Her Hair (Femme s'essuyant les cheveux) (1889), by Edgar Degas.

    Works on view by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne from the late nineteenth century demonstrate a shift from naturalism to a more gestural, expressive aesthetic. By the early and mid-twentieth century, and shaped by the trauma of a world war, artists like Vasily Kandinsky, Erich Heckel, and Käthe Kollwitz fully embraced this new style of Expressionism and exhibit a more graphic vocabulary of angular, distorted forms to communicate meaning. A number of geometric abstract lithographs by El Lissitzky from the series Victory Over the Sun (1923) demonstrate the period’s tensions between pure abstraction and representation.

    European artists were also influenced by encounters with the artistic style and peoples of Africa and the South Pacific. Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Woman (1894) and Emil Nolde’s South Sea (1915) are on view, along with Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut of a kneeling woman and Pablo Picasso’s Nude Standing in Profile (1906), an early example of how ancient Iberian art influenced his work.

    Rembrandt to Picasso marks more than one hundred years of collecting European works on paper at the Brooklyn Museum. The Museum’s earliest purchase, in 1900, was a group of watercolors by the French artist James Tissot, three of which are on view in the exhibition. Over the years, the Museum has built a collection of European prints and drawings that reflects the traditional Western canon. The cultural conditions under which art was traditionally made and validated in Europe offer only a partial history—with an imbalance in representation of women artists and artists of color. These issues are explored in the concurrent focus exhibition, One: Titus Kaphar, which highlights Kaphar’s monumental painting Shifting the Gaze (2017). Commentary by Kaphar, which is drawn from conversations he had with the curators of both exhibitions, accompanies a select number of prints and drawings in Rembrandt to Picasso, posing questions about familiar works and providing a context in which to view them in new, unexpected ways.

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