Monday, January 30, 2012

Ice and art

Yesterday Jeannine and I decided to drive up to Williamstown to see the Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists show at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum. We had planned to go a couple of days ago, on my birthday, but the weather was not good, unlike yesterday -- bright sunshine and temperatures in the forties.

I took the Mohawk Trail to North Adams, partly because I had not been that way since the repairs to the damage caused by Hurricane Irene last year had been fixed, and I wanted to see if the effects of that storm were still at least partly visible.

They were -- huge stretches along the banks of the river where the surging currents had torn away dirt and rocks and deeply undercut the trees along the riverbanks. At least one road off the Trail was still closed; we took a closer look at it and just a few hundred feet up the road the guardrails disappeared into a yawning abyss where half the paved road has been washed out. It must have been a crazy few days after that storm, when the waters were running high and strong. Scary.

Getting closer to North Adams, in the higher elevations of the Trail, near the "Eastern Summit", we passed through a glittering landscape of ice-encrusted trees, probably from the rain storm a couple of days ago. I stopped and took some photos with my new camera… here are a few.

The Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists show at the Clark was small but interesting. It had mostly to do with Rembrandt's influence on the early work of Degas, both in painting and printmaking. One thing that immediately struck me was an old book of reproductions of Rembrandt's paintings and etchings… but this book was printed before the advent of photoengraving as a technique for reproducing images. All of the illustrations in this book were copies of Rembrandt's works painstakingly etched and/or engraved by other artists so that they could be printed.

I immediately started thinking about what that transition period must have been like, when photoengraving came to be and removed the necessity of all that handwork to get art ready for reproduction… and not only that, removed the interpretation which was part and parcel of that older process, where -- no matter how careful and talented the engraver was -- the end result would never look exactly like the original, especially in those cases where it was a painting being reproduced.
A whole group of people must have been thrown out of work by the introduction of this new process… I wonder what they did? Did their particular skill set translate into some other viable way of making a living?

Next to the Rembrandt/Degas show, in another small gallery, was an interesting exhibit called "Copycat: Reproducing Works of Art", devoted to the history and practice of copying of images, including many examples of just this type of engraving and/or etching of existing images for reproduction. It was interesting to see some of the copies which were mirror-images of the originals, flipped 180 degrees horizontally, because the copier worked from a print directly onto a slab of metal… and as we all know, whatever you create by etching or scratching or engraving into a printing plate always appears in reverse when printed.

(Here's an example -- sorry for the bad photography! I think the original Rembrandt print is on the left, and the copy of it on the right. Notice how everything is reversed.)

And that made a few of the examples sort of mysterious -- some amazingly accurate copies of Albrecht Durer prints. But these were NOT mirror images of the originals, but correctly-oriented copies. How did the person making the copy do it? Were they working from the original printing plate? Did they use some clever mirror arrangement to create the image in reverse on the new plate? I have no idea.

As I walked around the "Copycat" exhibit, I was surprised and delighted to see a copy of one of my favorite paintings -- William-Adolphe Bouguereau's "Nymph and Satyr". This incredible, huge painting (I think the original is something like ten feet tall) is in the collection of the Clark, and I have admired it many times. But I'd never before seen this copy of it. I'm not sure if it was an etching or an engraving or a combination of the two techniques, but it was extremely accurate. Here's a photograph of the original painting…

… and here are a few views of the copy. (Sorry about the inferior quality of my photos.)

I find it hard to imagine what it would take to do a copy this accurate with the tools available at the time. Amazing!

I want to mention one other thing about the Rembrandt/Degas show. In one corner of the room, there was a small etching by Rembrandt. (I wish I could include a photograph here, but photography was not allowed in that gallery.) The etching -- which was probably about 8.5 by 11 inches -- included a self-portrait and a few other figures and at least one other face, along with a couple of things I couldn't make out. The images were sort of strewn around the pages in the way that any artist would recognize -- they were doodles, sketches of varying degrees of completion and quality. This is the kind of thing that artists do when working out some ideas. In this case, Rembrandt did his doodling on a metal printing plate, and later printed it out. (Or maybe he didn't… maybe someone who came later found this "doodle" plate and thought it might be cool to print it out. I don't know.) But the thing that bugged me was part of the description of this piece on the card next to it, which talked about its "informal composition".


WHAT composition?

It's a group of DOODLES!

You've got this nifty, beautiful little self-portrait (head, hat, hair, neck), and then -- oriented ninety degrees away -- two full figures in period dress, and a face in a hood, all of these out of proportion to the self-portrait, plus a couple of other things which I could not identify. But there's no COMPOSITION there… well, not what I understand as "composition", anyway. Maybe in museum-speak "informal composition" means "doodles". Who knows?

I just thought it was kind of silly. But it's a minor thing, and both shows are cool and worth checking out. -- PL

P.S. The Clark is currently undergoing some renovation and the main galleries are closed. I'm not sure how long they will remain closed.

The Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists show will be up until February 5, and the Copycat: Reproducing Works of Art show will be up until April 1. 


BL said...

What a cool trip...over the trail...the ice pics are camera? Or the Pentax? (We must do a book together! You saw THE MAN...Rembrandt!Sounds like a cool adventure!

exscind said...

Hiya Peter, nice pics!

Here's a crazy one I took a few years ago when Wichita had an ice storm:

mikeandraph87 said...

Rembrandt is one that can be overlooked by people these days. Funny enough my apprecaition of art beyond the casual comes from comic artist and the TMNT's inspired names.

I hope you had a happy 38th bday!

PL said...

"mikeandraph87 said...

I hope you had a happy 38th bday!"

Thanks for the happy birthday wishes.

You know, I am pretty sure my 38th birthday was pretty happy, though I don't remember it too well.

Okay, I don't remember it AT ALL. But given that I had a two-year old daughter at the time, and my wife and I were going into our tenth year together, and everyone in our respective families was hale and hearty, and the Turtles were just starting to hit it big, I think that I must have had a good time.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind having another thirty-eighth birthday. But until I figure out that Merlin "aging backwards" thing, I will have to be satisfied with now being 58. -- PL

Sarah The Anime Librarian said...

The ice photos are beautiful peter. And I love that picture of the nymphs and Saytyr too, its one of my faves.