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.)|
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)|
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.