Sunday, January 23, 2011

Playing catch up, pt. 2

Another show I wanted to write about, but didn't get to before it closed. In this case, I wish I had taken better notes.
In Your Dreams: 500 Years of Imaginary Prints
Detroit Institute of Art
8 September 2010 - 2 January 2011

Giovanni Batista Piranesi, The Drawbridge from the series The Imaginary Prisons, 1761, etching. (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)
One of my favorite quotes from Paul Klee is his statement that, "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible." I couldn't help but think that this is what artists have always done as I walked through the exhibition "In Your Dreams," handsomely installed in the Schwartz Graphic Arts Gallery of the DIA. The exhibition of 135 or so works was drawn entirely from the museum's vast graphic arts collection and it was yet another example of how the department's curators, and in this case department head Nancy Sojka, have in recent times been coming up with creative ways to make use of the trove of stuff they have on hand, marrying existing materials to interesting concepts that not only have viewer appeal but educational and aesthetic value as well.

The exhibition focused on a core area of the museum's holdings, prints created in the last 500 years basically in Europe and America. The show followed a path that didn't so much run counter as add a layer of complexity to the traditional reading of art history -- typified by Ernst Gombrich in books like The Story of Art and Art and Illusion and still taught in survey courses across the land -- that the evolution of art is one of the perfection of mimesis (i.e., the imitation of nature, or as Klee would have it, the visible simply reproduced) and then ultimately of art coming into its own reality as a material and expressive practice.

Albrecht Durer, Book of Revelation (The Four Riders of the Apocalypse), 1497-1498, woodcut (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
"In Your Dreams" started with the Renaissance, the moment when, the traditional storyline goes, artists woke up from the deep representational sleep of the Middle Ages to rediscover the naturalism initially brought to fruition by the Greeks. Yet even from these beginnings of modern Western culture in quattrocento Italy, the evidence in this exhibition showed, artists were full-tilt engaged in the pursuit of "making-visible" as opposed to just reproducing it. In the case of religious art, theological concepts were given form, no matter how "down to earth" the manner of representation, in exercises whose purpose was to evoke the world of the inner spirit, something artists have practiced since their prehistoric origins as magicians and shamans. In the case of the retrieval of the techniques of perspective, the "rational" principles governing the cosmos were booted-strapped by the application of mathematical formulae to the two-dimensional surface, literally drawing three-dimensional space out of thin air. Indeed, the architectural fantasies of Giovanni Batista Piranesi, The Imaginary Prisons (1761), that were included in "In Your Dreams" are every bit as surreal as the work of Salvador Dali some two centuries later.

To give Gombrich his due, it was the technique of representing reality not the reflection of reality itself that he claimed artists perfected starting with the Renaissance, the total mastery of which later allowed them to explore the formal and expressive possibilities of making-visible. The making-visible of inner subjective being (what we now know as the realm of the psychological) becomes manifest, in standard histories, first with Rembrandt but only really comes into full flower in the waning moments of the 18th century and then into the early 19th with Romanticism. "In Your Dreams" offered some prime examples, such as Eugene Delacroix's Ghost of Maguerite Appearing to Faust (1828) and Francisco Goya's A Way of Flying (1816), the latter of which depicts human figures equipped with bat wings suspended against the dark abyss. There were also several prints by visionary poet-artist William Blake.

Some of the most imaginative dreamworlds are those of Symbolists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Formalist readings of art history often pause only briefly on this work, contemporaneous with Postimpressionism, Fauvism, and other more stylistically vanguard movements of early Modernism, in the march to art's ultimate liberation from mimesis and into pure abstraction in the 20th century, but here they were well represented. In particular, Odilon Redon's series "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (1888) and other lithographs featuring wild-eyed compositional mashups of human body parts, plants, animals, and environments, done around the same time as Sigmund Freud began developing psychoanalysis, showed Symbolism as a precursor to Dada and Surrealism, the latter movements of course also on view along with the prints of many other Modernist masters.

Perhaps the most imaginative curatorial decision was the inclusion of a recent woodblock relief print, Aerial #3 (2009), by my fellow Kresge Fellow Susan Goethel Campbell. A field of seemingly random white dots scattered across a blue background that registered the grain of the matrix, the image is actually made by perforating the substrate with a pattern derived from the artist's studies of the environment. Clean and beautiful, the print at once references nature and the digital technology now used to map its flows, which in the process of mediation separates us from it.

All in all, "In Your Dreams" was a terrific show. For those of you who missed it, you can only imagine what it was like.


  1. Is Martin Schongauer Temptation of St. Anthonty in the collection? One of my favorites.

  2. My search of the DIA collection came up with only one Schongauer, The Angel of the Annunciation, an etching from 1490/91. It's quite lovely. But that's only what shows up on the publicly accessible database. They don't have everything cataloged online. The person to ask would be Nancy Sojka @ the DIA.