Walking into the Smart Museum’s opening for Paper Museums: The Reproductive Print in Europe, 1500-1800 last Thursday was like stepping into another world. The new exhibit seeks to reassess the functional and aesthetic value of prints that copied existing paintings, sculptures, and sometimes other prints. During my time on campus, I’ve toured the Smart’s galleries as part of classes, with out-of-city visitors, and on a whim when the Chicago days were cold and the exhibition titles sound especially interesting. But this was my first time at an opening as press. When I approached the museum’s front desk to ask about the press kit that Christine Carrino, the Smart’s public relations and marketing director, had promised me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was out of my league among the gathering art students, Hyde Park intelligentsia, and exhibition curators.
The evening started off with a bang. My off-balance feelings didn’t dissipate when Dan Dry, the photographer covering the opening, introduced himself, telling me about his work with National Geographic and what it was like to win the Pulitzer Prize. I started to feel better after talking to Dry. He treated me like part of that select group”The Press”and suddenly I was. I met Christine for a few moments before joining my friend Alex, who, as an art history major and barista at the Smart Café, was already an insider in the world I wanted to enter. Through Alex, and later Jonathan, another friend on the Smart staff, I got the insider’s view of the art world at the Smart.
Alex introduced me to David Ingenthron, one of the Smart’s staff in charge of doing the actual installation of the exhibition. In this case, his work had included the installation of over 100 prints. Ingenthron was nice enough to fill me in on the behind-the-scenes work that goes into every one of the Museum’s exhibitions. In addition to setting up galleries, Ingenthron works with the curators to decide on the best manner in which to arrange the artwork, so I had a better idea of the number of people involved in Paper Museums by the time I sat down to listen to the curators’ talk.
Paper Museums boasts three distinguished curators: Rebecca Zorach, who is an assistant professor of art history in the College, as well as Anne Leonard and Elizabeth Rodini, the Smart Museum Mellon Projects curator and former curator, respectively. Each of the curators gave a short talk to introduce the exhibition that had me rushing to see Paper Museums for myself.
On entering the gallery that houses Paper Museums, I was impressed. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, the exhibition is appealing. The curators have re-imagined the space with something of the feel of a European estate library: Heavy wooden chairs surround tables with open books of prints, and richly painted walls are adorned with a vast array of framed prints, many of which come from the Epstein Archives at the University’s Regenstein Library. It is not difficult to imagine that the prints on display are those of a private collector. Along with the de rigueur introduction to the exhibition at the entrance, there is also an interesting collection of the materials a printmaker would have used in his or her workshop.
Along with the intrinsic interest prints and printmaking claim as an art form, Paper Museums does an excellent job of contextualizing the status of printmaking between 1500 and 1800. The exhibition emphasizes the place of reproductive printsprints that copy existing worksin education. Artists and collectors who could not afford to travel to see the original works firsthand could purchase prints inexpensively in order to develop their connoisseurship and train their eyes, as well as to adapt or adopt the styles of other artists as a means of learning technical skills. The exhibition takes its name from the original “paper museums,” the private collections of connoisseurs such as Adam von Bartsch, whose print collection is one of the largest in the world.
Paper Museums also does a wonderful job of showing different artists’ interpretations of the same original work side-by-side, or showing both the print and the original together. One example of the latter is Diana Mantovana’s 1581 print, “Farhese Bull,” displayed on the wall behind the original sculpture. Another example features Marcantonio Raimondi’s “Presentation of Christ in the Temple” beside the original print of the same name by Albrecht Dürer. Not only does this allow us to see each printmaker’s innovations on a piece, but it also raises questions about forgery versus the copying of a copy, and explores the period’s nascent concept of artistic property.
Before I left for the evening, I spoke to Zorach about what it was like to curate Paper Museums. She told me a little about printmaking and its status as a self-contained family enterprise, with a whole family taking part in the business, which is why women such as Mantovana could become printmakers relatively painlessly. Zorach also elaborated on minutiae such as the fate of the copper plates onto which prints were etched; they were usually melted down for reuse.
As I left the “museums” within the museum, I marveled at the exhibition: the delicate and painstakingly detailed beauty of the prints, the boldness of re-envisioning the reproductive print as valuable artistic endeavor in its own right, as well as the issues of education, copying, and forgery. These individual elements highlighted by the curators make Paper Museums a thought-provoking, worthwhile exhibition that we are lucky to have in Hyde Park.