Los Angeles

Old Master Prints from the National Gallery of Art

National Gallery of Art, University of Southern California

As a part of an educational program designed to create greater interest in prints, the Print Council of America asked Mr. Lessing J. Rosenwald, one of the nation’s outstanding collectors (and donor of the extensive and magnificent collection that bears his name to the National Gallery), to select fifty works by twenty artists from his donation for circulation to museums and galleries throughout the United States. Spanning the major print developments in Western art to the end of the 19th century, the exhibition is not only a fine introduction to the subject for the novice, but an excellent opportunity for the expert to see and compare major efforts in the field.

By far the most impressive work, from the standpoints of size, technique and historical interest is “The Large Fortune (Nemesis),” an engraving done in 1501–2 by Albrecht Durer. If one man can be said to embody the change from Gothic to Renaissance in Northern Europe, Durer is the man; this print is the work which may be pointed out as the one which marks the change. While this is an oversimplification, this work is the first nude female figure done by the artist according to classic canon––indeed, she might almost be an illustration of the treatise on anatomical proportions by Vitruvius. Here, Durer’s technique is polished, smooth; the number of lines per square inch two or three times greater, the lines finer, smoother, as he strove to capture classical perfection. The figure carries a goblet, symbol of favor, and a bridle, symbol of castigation, as she floats on a sphere above a realistically rendered view of a specific Tyrolean town, a typical Durer combination of fidelity to both nature and fantasy.

Rembrandt is represented by seven small, intimate examples, including two of his self-portraits. A work that represents the artist in his later, emotionally richest period, and a work that is almost the complete antithesis of the Durer work mentioned above is “Christ Carried to the Tomb.” Small, beautifully handled, and freely executed, this work, with a minimum of physical effort and very little attention to realistic detail, conveys a great emotional experience through simple, direct means, for technique and expression are one here, in a work almost small enough to be held in the palm of one hand. Four figures carry the body of Christ on a litter; four others press about it, silhouetting the whiteness of the still, quiet, horizontal body against their own shadows, as it is conveyed toward the only other dark accent––the mouth of the simple, cave-like tomb. A few strokes represent foreground vegetation, a few others convey the hill and some watching figures on top, and that is all. But that is all that it needs––it is a masterpiece.

The changes to be noted between the works of Rembrandt and Durer and those of the American expatriate James A. McNeil Whistler not only reflect technical development and differences in talent, they represent differences in social attitudes as well. The two fashionable women at their ease in “The Sisters” represent a world in which the concerns of Durer and Rembrandt are no longer of first importance, although their world is the direct outcome of the increased interest in human development which Durer and Rembrandt expressed. The lithographic process, as opposed to either engraving or etching, is one of ease of drawing, so that the work involved in obtaining the image is greatly lessened. However, the success of the work still depends on the ability of the artist to handle black and white and their shadings, and his ability to use these tools to convey his meaning. In this concern, all of the graphic works on display were united and the communication, whether great or trivial in nature, was impressive.

––H. J. Weeks

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