Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dürer and Pinkney

I can't recall exactly when or how or where I was introduced to the work of Albrecht Dürer (though I suspect it was probably in college), but I do know that I immediately found his stuff, especially his engravings, very impressive and inspirational. The level of detail and the complexity of his images always appealed to me. And when I took printmaking classes at UMass and discovered exactly how difficult and time-consuming it is to engrave even a simple image on a copper plate, I was even more gobsmacked, as the Brits say.
So when I discovered a few days ago that there was a new show titled "The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer" at the Sterling and Francine Clark art museum in Williamstown, I immediately set to trying to convince Jeannine that we should go to it, perhaps even make it a "twofer" day by also heading south from Williamstown to see the Jerry Pinkney show at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

Because Jeannine had already wanted to go to the Pinkney show, it didn't take much convincing. She was a little concerned about running into a snowstorm while traveling over the Mohawk Trail, but we lucked out, and only saw a few slight flurries and an inch or so of snow on the ground up in the hills.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that admission to the Clark is free from November through May, but to be honest I would have been more than happy to pay double the usual price to see the Dürer exhibit. This was the first time I had ever seen any of his actual prints -- wood engraving, etching, and metal engraving -- and they were fantastic. Literally so, in many cases, because Durer had a wild imagination and some of his prints have some pretty crazy creatures, including a multi-headed monster in several of them which would not look out of place in a book by Dr. Seuss (if Dr. Seuss were a bit more gnarly, that is).

I'm not sure if it was because we were there on a weekday, or if it was the cold, or what, but I'm pretty sure Jeannine and i were the only people at the show (except for a few bored museum guards). There may have been one or two other people, but I was so into peering closely at the prints that I really can't say for sure.

In fact, I was looking SO closely at the prints that at one point Jeannine took my arm and started to tug me away, saying something about how the museum guards might frown on my getting so close to the art. And it wasn't but scant seconds later that one of the guards DID speak up -- but it was to offer us the use of magnifying glasses in the next room, so that we could look even MORE closely at the art. Cool!

So we did, and had even more fun. Dürer's work is full of serious religious imagery, and chock full of symbolism and hidden meanings that I can only guess at, but the neat thing, something that Jeannine and I both found delightful, were the touches of warmth and humor that could be found in many of the works. I pointed out to Jeannine a very cute little cherub struggling to get up on some stilts in the lower left corner of one print, and she directed me to a very tiny (about the size of a grain of rice) but beautifully rendered goat standing on a cliff way off in the background of Dürer's well-known "Adam and Eve" print.

Of the three different types of prints on display, I have to say that it was the ones made by engraving on copperplate that I found the most amazing. Dürer put so much into the shadings and textures in these pieces -- it was almost staggering to contemplate the level of intense concentration required to achieve those precise results with the difficult process he used.

We left the show feeling inspired and awed, and talked at length about the artwork we'd seen as we enjoyed a lunch of Indian (and Chinese/Indian) food at a restaurant in Williamstown, the Spice Root. Then it was back in the car to head south to the Rockwell Museum for a very different show -- "Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney".

Jerry Pinkney is a well-known, prolific and justly-lauded illustrator who has done tons of work over a fifty-year career. (In fact, he did an illustration for a piece Jeannine wrote which was published in an anthology titled "Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out". He is a master of watercolor, one of the more difficult art media (in my opinion, anyway). We were both looking forward to seeing this show. And it was nice.

But… well, maybe it was seeing all of that work in one place (the exhibit filled most of three galleries at the Rockwell Museum), but I found myself at several points just wishing for something, ANYTHING, with a hard-edged line and/or a dramatic juxtaposition of varying tonal values. (There was one piece with these qualities which really drew me in, a painting depicting -- I believe -- some fugitive slaves crossing a river at night… it had a great composition and beautiful colors, with a dramatically dark sky.) Pinkney's technique in most of these works combines an underlying pencil drawing with watercolors applied over the pencils. It's a lovely technique, and Pinkney does it exceedingly well (and it helps that he is a superb draughtsman, with an excellent eye for detail and the willingness to extensively research his subject matter), but I found it ultimately kind of disappointing. As I said to Jeannine as we discussed the show on the drive home, it was like wanting some milk and some chocolate… and only being offered milk chocolate. Most of the art seemed to exist in a kind of warm and friendly middle-ground of tonal values, which (at least for me) when seen in such quantities as in this show, becomes like a vaguely annoying background drone (if I can mix my metaphors for a moment).

One piece sort of sums up the downside of the technique. It's a beautifully drawn, well-composed illustration of the horrific conditions below decks onboard a slave ship transporting kidnapped Africans to the New World. It cries out for a real sense of gloom and darkness to capture the sense of deep despair in such a situation, with perhaps a few stray bits of dramatic light to suggest the desperate hope for freedom that these men must have kept in their hearts.

But in Pinkney's signature style (the slightly sketchy but assured pencil drawing washed with watercolor) it just doesn't have it. Again, everything exists in a kind of middle range of values, which for a piece of this nature, depicting this kind of situation, is ultimately uninspiring.

I would love to see what Jerry Pinkney could create if he broke out of this obviously well-loved way of illustrating and did some ink drawings with watercolor, or scratchboard, or maybe even woodcuts -- anything which would bring more drama to the tonal values in the work.

All that being said, though, I would still recommend this show.

(And the Dürer one!)  -- PL


Anonymous said...

I read about Durer in art history last semester. Truly awsome (in the classical understanding of the word) work. He did this painting of a rabbit that looks like he painted every single hair on it.

And his prints are just amazing. I truly wish I lived close enough to be able to see it.

Though, I tend to have a habbit of getting thrown out of art museums for the same reason your wife was worried about.

Usualy stupid things like forgetting to turn in my backpack that I usualy have with me while on vacation, but the guards do not notice until I'm near a small sculpture or something.

The Clark said...

Thank you for coming to the exhibition, PL! So glad you enjoyed it :-)

We're wondering if you might allow us to reprint your blog post on the Clark's blog (with very minor editing)? We would, of course, run the final post past you before making it live.

Here is the Clark's blog, if you'd like to take a look:

Please do let us know at this address:

Thank you so much!
The Clark