Clark Art Institute unveils 160 years of French art captured on paper

  • Paul Signac’s lithograph “Au Temps d’Harmonie” (“In the Times of Harmony”) from 1898 is based upon one of his pointillist paintings. An anarchist, he was hoping for a nonviolent revolution for France that would, among other things, bring about a worker’s paradise. COURTESY CLARK ART INSTITUTE

  • “Vin Mariani” 1894: Melancholia was an emotion unknown to the figures in Jules Cheret’s posters. He was a master of lithography, pioneering numerous improvements and raising what was first considered low-brow illustration into collectible fine art. COURTESY CLARK ART INSTITUTE

  • “Rain in Uchiyamashita … District,” 1923, by Kawase Hasui: An appreciation for Japanese woodblock art, which profoundly influenced the Impressionists, had a resurgence in this country in the late 1940s when American occupational forces sent images such as this back to the United States. COURTESY CLARK ART INSTITUTE

  • Mary Cassatt was the only American to officially become a member of the Parisian Impressionists and it was in that city where she rose to international fame. She learned the process of printmaking from Edgar Degas and had a press in her Paris apartment. “Mother’s Kiss” from 1891 was composed of two separate color plates and one of 10 studies created for an exhibit that year. COURTESY CLARK ART INSTITUTE

For the Recorder
Published: 1/12/2022 2:26:28 PM

There’s a vivid nostalgia for a distant era when you simply entered a museum, theater or shop and became familiar with 100% of a person’s face. No more. When entering Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute, as with many venues, visitors over the age of 12 must present a vaccination card. If you’re unadorned, masks are provided.

From the romantic to the risqué, from Mary Cassatt to Toulouse-Lautrec, through March 6 you can view some 100 images of French artistic progress in the culture of reproducing images multiple times.

“There are these moments when printmaking really comes to the fore,” curator Anne Leonard said during a walkabout. “The first great moment is right before the French Revolution.”

Leonard was appointed to oversee the institute’s collection of some 6,000 photographs, prints and drawings in 2018. As she became familiar with a sea of antique colored engravings, etchings and lithographs, she was inspired to create this definitive study of art on paper.

“I was stunned by the quality and variety (of these works),” Leonard said, “and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this make a nice exhibition?’”

She paused before a 1771 hand-colored engraving of Madame du Barry, official mistress of Louis XV. Wreathed in finery, she smiles beatifically while receiving a demitasse from her servant Zamor. Easily mistaken for a painting, multiple printings of this elegance would be created, selling for sobering prices.

“These works were status symbols and only available to the top echelon of society, the aristocrats and the nobility,” Leonard said. “Of course, they’re all about to lose their heads.”

Not figuratively, but literally. What is telling in this portrait is that du Barry would be betrayed by this young man. She was among the estimated 10,000 whose last earthly view was of the guillotine.

All was not portraiture and landscapes, however. There was also humor. A popular 1786 image, “The Two Kisses,” shows an elderly man beaming at a portrait of himself with a young lady, unaware that behind him, his artist smacks the hand of the beauty.

Other popular engravings, not shown here, traveled into R-ratings and beyond, often depicting lovers surprised at, well, the worst possible moment. Colored engravings were also of academic use in depicting botanical and biological studies.

The French Revolution, running for a long-winded 10 years, ravaged the economy and laid waste to the accoutrements of the upper class. Among the causalities was the industry of manufacturing colored engravings due to their connection to the wealthy.

“For about 80 years you do not see color printmaking in France,” Leonard said.

A revolution in printmaking

Both engraving and etching are complicated processes, even more so if color is to be mechanically pressed onto paper. Engraving requires scribing images on a metal plate, whereas in etching a resin is applied to the surface. The artist penetrates the resin with stylus, or burin and an acid bath then cuts into the metal. For colors to be added mechanically, several plates are required. The flaw of each process is that the image eventually wears down.

Lithography was invented in Germany in the late 1790s. Put simply, it works off the dynamic of grease repelling water. An image, created with a grease pen on porous stone or metal, can continue to be printed, without deterioration, until the end of time. Blank space was where water held no image and the paper was then dried. Among the invention’s first uses were to make maps and multiple copies of sheet music.

By 1820, this extremely inexpensive means of serial reproduction created a manic boom for use in menus, timetables and virtually anything requiring text and images. Later in the century, four-color printing evolved and the use of large zinc sheets meant that advertising posters could be printed in jumbo sizes.

The best known of the hundreds of Parisian poster illustrators were Jules Cheret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These renderings, on cheap paper, advertised items as diverse as bicycles, rolling papers and the notorious Moulin Rouge. Although their work was first dismissed as “the art of the street,” in time sophisticates viewed these splashy, glossy posters as commendable works. Smaller editions, on far better paper, became prominent collectibles.

“This is a big step forward in making color prints pass for fine art, as earlier they were disdained,” Leonard said.

Cheret, considered “the father of the modern poster” owned his own print business, had complete control of his images and is credited with more than 1,000 renderings. Other illustrators often created an image on paper that was then processed by a middleman. Living to the age of 96, the artist was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for his innovations in creating a new art form.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born into wealth and classically trained in the creation of portraiture and landscapes. The images that he’s best remembered for, however, regard his renderings of the singers, dancers and nightlife of Moulin Rouge. His works dramatically differ from the detailed, festive, exuberant imagery of Cheret. Toulouse-Lautrec’s style is bolder and more graphic, using large blocks of color to display figures.

The Frenchman also pioneered several techniques in posters. His fascination with the low life of Paris doubtless contributed to his early death at age 36.

The exhibit displays eight of the collectible Cherets and an equal number by Toulouse-Lautrec.

A golden age

This period, “Le Belle Epoque,” the “Beautiful Age,” running some 40 years concluding at World War I, was an exciting time to be in Paris, even if it lacked air conditioning and penicillin.

The modes of painting were frequently revised and the influences on artists were broad, even arriving from halfway around the world. With the opening of Japan to the western world in 1853, among the new revelations was its woodcut artistry. These works were collected by the Impressionists and in turn influenced much of their approach to art. Not to be missed are some 30 pristine examples of woodcuts dating to the early 19th century, displaying antique forms of the technique as well as modernist minimalism. This exhibit, closing Jan. 30, is located in the institute’s Manton building, a short walk from the main galleries.

Among the revisionists were the “Nabi,” a society of young artists who took the name from the Hebrew word for “prophet.” In simple terms, they chose to revitalize art, transitioning the form from the now aging Impressionism to modernism. Among their beliefs was that images required a melodious integration of line and color, and they were strong on spiritualism and mysticism.

There are examples of the four artists who belonged to this cult in a gallery of lithographs commissioned by the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard. He’s known as instrumental in advancing the careers of such heavy hitters as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In the late 1890s, he intended to publish a series of Nabi portfolios with the prints of Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard.

“These four artists took very different directions, but they were all making extremely sophisticated fine art,” Leonard said.

Many of these works are rarely shown, given the fragility of their subtle colors to light.

“It’s a big treat to put them out on view,” the curator noted.

A lithograph by Vuillard, “…Interior with Pink Wallpaper,” is a hallucination of a room with a vague human form and confined lamplight. Look more closely and there’s a curious depth of images within the wall. Many of his works are so dreamlike, the images are as subtle as breath on glass.

As Leonard pointed out, by this time these artists had a complete mastery of this printing process.

She explained that there had been long-running anxiety as to whether lithographic images were actual art.

“That is completely resolved at this point,” Leonard said. “Color prints are now entirely legitimate.”

What was also resolved for Vuillard was to never again take on such a project, originally intended as a limited edition of these prints.

“Vuillard lost a lot of money,” the curator said. “They were a complete financial loss for him. He could not find a way to make it profitable.”

In 1900, the Nabis held a final exhibition and the movement then vanished.

“Competing Currents” exhibiting Japanese woodblocks, continues through Jan. 30. “Hue and Cry: French Printmaking and the Debate Over Colors” continues through March 6. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to  5 p.m. Free admission through January. Advance reservations are recommended at clarkart.edu. Vaccination cards required for visitors over the age of 12.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.


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