Putting together an exhibition of a single medium is an undertaking that requires considerable balance. While there may be copious amounts of material from which to draw, it is much harder to choose the right works and periods to tell an engaging and informative aesthetic story. With “Dürer, Munch, Miró: The Great Masters of Printmaking,” Vienna’s Albertina Museum is able to tell a compelling story and much more.1
The Albertina houses one of the most impressive print collections in the world, and it is on full display for their newest exhibition, where ten rooms are filled with prints ranging from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries. Artists renowned for their printmaking, such as the names that give the exhibition its title, share space with painters whose prints are less well-known. The museum itself is a lavishly appointed Habsburg palace, and the exquisitely restored state rooms, which are just across from the exhibition, are a must-see for anyone interested in nineteenth-century architecture and design. They regularly display some of the finest drawings in the world by Dürer (1471–1528) as well as Michelangelo (1475–1564).
The progression of the works is in chronological order, and rightfully so, but as a consequence, the exhibition spoils us with dessert before dinner. Dürer’s engravings take up much of the first room, including two of his Meisterstiche (“master prints”). Almost immediately we are greeted by Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513–14), St. Jerome in His Study (1514), and Adam and Eve (1504). These works show the height of Dürer’s skills as an engraver. Giorgio Vasari hailed Knight, Death, and the Devil as one of “several sheets of such excellence that nothing finer can be achieved.” It depicts a knight riding through a tenebrous valley, seemingly undaunted by the demons and omens of death that haunt him—underneath the horse, his faithful hunting dog accompanies him. Dürer’s masterly rendering of the armor makes it shine with only two tones, and the way he builds grand figures that convey such strong facial emotion gives support to Vasari’s praise. In St. Jerome, the study is rendered with such detail that even the small stained-glass panes separated by the grilles of the windows take on shape and life.
The exhibition does a thorough job explaining the printmaking process and its various methods. We are taken from the first examples of printed art, folksy woodblock prints displaying religious themes, to the lithographs that decorated Parisian streets towards the end of the nineteenth century. In between, we learn about the methods of engraving, etching, aquatint, mezzotint, and lithography. They produce widely different visual results, but they share a basic mechanism of production: the artist embeds a hard surface with the design, and the marks left behind are then filled with ink and pressed against the final surface, usually paper. Each room in the exhibition focuses on the given era’s printmaking methods, with televisions that show each design process in action.
The printing process created detailed works and allowed artists to greatly expand their business. Using one engraving plate, an artist could print and sell hundreds of copies of his work, and many prints were also used as illustrations for books. The artists were able to market themselves to a greater share of the population, most of whom could not afford to buy paintings.
Each of the various etching processes can create startlingly clear and defined prints when in the hands of a master. Once the technique of lithography had been pioneered in the nineteenth-century, however, artists could depict a much wider range of colors with definition and detailed shading, and the style of work became more impressionistic. The expressive and colorful lithographs of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) are immediately recognizable. His work, which focused on the vaudevilles and cabarets of late-nineteenth-century France, fulfilled a new demand for colorful and eye-catching advertisements.
Edvard Munch (1863–1944) used the color lithograph—somewhat ironically, given the precedent—to make somber and melancholic works. His sparse and solemn Anxiety (1896) is a powerful representation of the more artistic side of the lithographic medium. His line of black-clad figures looks at us out of madding eyes, as their bodies seem to disappear into the background. The wavy lines of red above, the only instance of color, hang ominous and foreboding.
The subjects of the lithographs are a startling departure from those depicted by the Old Masters, a contrast heightened by the previous section in the exhibition, which featured a photorealistic self-portrait of Thomas Frye (1710–62) and monolithic mezzotints of John Martin (1789–1864). Martin’s apocalyptic scenes, rendered in frightening detail, show the intricacy of old printmaking processes as late as the mid-nineteenth century.
Finally, Joan Miró’s (1893–1983) colorful surrealist prints help to fill out a room with modern and non-representational works. His figures and shapes are inscrutable, seemingly following no model or geometric plan, and his expressive and liberal use of color, in contrast with the many monochrome prints earlier in the exhibition, is shocking to us. The Spaniard is reported to have said that he wanted to “assassinate painting,” meaning that he sought to destroy the old way of art. He may not have succeeded in that lofty goal, but Miró evidently managed to bludgeon and burn a few of his own canvases, leaving them bleeding blots of red, blue, and yellow.
The works in this exhibition travel across the centuries to show us the best that has been done in printmaking. There is something for everyone here, from the consummate mythological prints of Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) to a contemplative self-portrait of Rembrandt (1606–69) to the deeply moving woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945). For such a small museum, the Albertina has brought together an impressive collection.