Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe

Exhibition Review

  • "Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe"

  • Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Boston
  • 06 Sep 2011 - 11 Dec 2011
  • Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
  • 17 Jan 2012 - 08 Apr 2012
Jost Amman, The Ptolemaic System (1579) from Barthelemy de Chasseneuz, Catalogus gloraie mundi, Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend, etching and engraving in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.”

Jost Amman, The Ptolemaic System (1579) from Barthelemy de Chasseneuz, Catalogus gloraie mundi, Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend, etching and engraving in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.”

“Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe” sets out to develop the role of the artist as an integral contributor to visual culture around and during the 16th century. The exhibition provides a convincing argument with a significant collection of etchings, engravings and woodcuts illuminating the artist’s role in the production and introduction of observation, visualization and the importance of collaboration in the execution of new technologies.

Tools and implements of discovery are seen alongside their activities in Stradanus’s (Jan van der Straet) Nova reperta (New inventions and discoveries of modern times) c. 1599-1603. These ten engravings show inventions activated by their users, whether navigational, geographical, astronomical or day-to-day practical. In the Invention of Eyeglasses a cast of characters populate the pictorial plane, enacting not only the selection of lenses, but also the act of reading, writing and sewing with their ocular aides. Two panels of the series are devoted to the significance of print itself with the Invention of Book Printing and the Invention of Copperplate Engraving. In the former typesetters work alongside pressmen and proofreaders while the latter shows a busy workspace filled with instruments of the trade in all stages of an engraving’s execution. Knowledge is nothing without dissemination and the bundled and drying stacks of paper in these panels attest to the value of print’s portability.

Georg Brentel the Younger, Conus Solaris concavus, das ist ein holer innwediger Kögel oder Kelch (1615), engraving, in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.”

Georg Brentel the Younger, Conus Solaris concavus, das ist ein holer innwediger Kögel oder Kelch (1615), engraving, in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.”

Navigation in the late 15th century was not limited to the stars, and included the inner space of the human body. Several anatomical theater engravings are visible in the exhibition and offer multiple representations of medical discovery and the profession itself. The surgery depicted in The Anatomy Lesson, a 1494 woodcut with hand printed colored blocks and stencils (artist unknown), frustrated individuals like Andreas Vesalius, a key reformer in 16th-century anatomical pedagogy. This early print depicts a physician ensconced in a throne-like setting holding court over a surgeon about to slice into the daily lesson. Vesalius believed that physicians should conduct their own surgeries, revealing the dissonance between theory and practice behind the instructional surgical depiction. More than a century later Bartolomeus Willemsz Dolendo portrayed the Anatomical Theater at Leiden University (engraving with letterpress) as a circus-like amphitheater. At this time anatomical theaters were not only sites of learning through surgical procedures but also sites of exhibitions for skeletal specimens and related prints (although not simultaneously).

Another set of anatomical works offer viewers the chance to embrace dissection with Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder’s anatomical flaps. Vogtherr created both a male and female specimen with woodcuts printed from 24 blocks, cut and constructed, hand-colored and letterpressed. The result is a print that acts as a model, with intricate hinged layers of separation enabling the inspection of organs and their systems in and around the torso. A reproduction of the print outside the vitrine encourages viewers to experience the print first-hand, and unlike the gruesome cadavers in the anatomical theaters, Vogtherr’s subjects have a blush to their cheeks and stylish hair. The titles, Anatomy, or, a faithful reproduction of the body of a female [and male] alludes to this artistic embellishment, emphasizing the importance of the experience of the print itself, rather than its absolute representational truth—a point that resonates with a large number of works on display.

Georg Brentel the Younger, Conus Solaris concavus, das ist ein holer innwediger Kögel oder Kelch (1615), engraving, in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.”

Georg Brentel the Younger, Conus Solaris concavus, das ist ein holer innwediger Kögel oder Kelch (1615), engraving, in “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge.”

The close observation of nature that underlays these anatomical and astrological efforts was also lavished on flora and fauna, particularly by artists in the Netherlands. Beached whales appear in two engravings after Goltzius: one a Sperm whale beached near Berkhey in 1598 that seems to have attracted a carnival atmosphere; the other a Pilot that is shown being carefully measured, a rare specimen for scientific study. More often, artists resident in Northern Europe had to rely on a combination of observation and hearsay—suffice it to say, Adriaen Collaert’s starling is a good deal more accurate than his giraffe. The exhibition includes the Great Lion of Jacques de Gheyn (Fig. 1), who mixed borrowed forms with a real interest in mammalian anatomy, and multiple visions of the Rhinoceros, including Dürer’s with its exquisite drawing and peculiar armor plating.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Great Lion (c. 1590), engraving. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous Fund for the Acquisition of Prints Older than 150 Years, 2009.46. ©2011 President and Fellows of Harvard Col- lege. Photo: Department of Digital Imaging and Visual Resources, Harvard Art Museums.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Great Lion (c. 1590), engraving. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous Fund for the Acquisition of Prints Older than 150 Years, 2009.46. ©2011 President and Fellows of Harvard Col- lege. Photo: Department of Digital Imaging and Visual Resources, Harvard Art Museums.

Another key aspect of “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge” is how the activated user or observer of early modern Europe transcends the paper and informs a present day audience. Reproductions of objects including sundials, astrolabes, and globes are scattered thoughtfully throughout the show with instructions on their use. I’ll admit it was all Latin to me, and it is difficult to find the position of the sun in a darkened gallery, but the ability to see the prints constructed as objects was its own reward. I especially enjoyed Georg Hartmann’s Cruciform Sundial for All Latitudes of 1529. This woodcut emphasized symbolism over function with a laborious system of tabs and folds creating a 3D crucifix able to operate in multiple time zones, and was complicated for even the savviest of sundial users. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating example of technology and a pointed reminder of not only printmaking’s potential at this time, but its continued importance as a vessel for knowledge today.

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