The premise which guided the organization of this exhibition is that naturalism is the first example of the permeation of science into all forms of artistic expression. The narrative of this thesis will be illustrated through the graphic masterpieces of the artists of the time. Therefore, this show begins with the realism and naturalism of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (circa 1720-78) famous for his views of the ruins of Rome and fantastic compositions of building interiors. His formidable artistic skills, bolstered by his architectural training and informed appetite for archeological detail, found full expression in imaginary studies of prisons, ruins, vaults and arcades full of highly contrasting light and dark shadows. Art lovers appreciate his work for its remarkable flights of imagination combined with a strong practical understanding of ancient Roman technology.
These images of half-buried monuments, integrated with churches and street life and picturesque rural incursions, are compelling documents of a great city in an era when the study of antiquity was fueling the contradictory aesthetic revolution of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. However, the positive – and more important – aspect is his commitment to feeling and to his “sovereign right” of expression.
GIOVANNI BATTISTA PIRANESI (Italian, 1720-1788), The Pier with Chains, plate XVI, from the series Carceri d' invenzione [Imaginary Prisons], circa 1749, etching and engraving, 16 x 21 3/4 inches. Private collection loan
Piranesi learned a great deal from Venetian artists, especially Giovanni Antonio Canaletto, who depicted with uncanny verisimilitude, the piazzas and palazzi, churches and canals of his city. Canaletto was able to “capture” Venetian light – a glamor born of the interplay between sky and water. Although Piranesi worked exclusively in black and white, he, nevertheless, is a master of the effects of light in his masses of deep shadow and bold areas of full sun and in the unobtrusive yet deftly sketched movement of clouds in his skies.
His work also was influenced by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s picturesque jumble of architectural and sculptural elements, and Ferdinando Galli Bibiena’s scenographic presentations and theatrical designs.
Piranesi never aimed for a pure, idealized, harmonious classicism. Although in his mature work like Carceri d’Invenzione (imaginary prisons) the spaces, simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, the parts have been jumbled – stairs and drawbridges go nowhere, arches pile up to form inescapable labyrinths, heavy chains are swagged across gulfs of space. He portrays a macabre fantasy of space and suggests a descent into the subconscious. This is the Piranesi of the dark imagination that appealed to the fantasies of the Romantics and the psychological preoccupation of the Moderns.
After his death, his sons Francesco and Pietro and his daughter Laura moved to Paris, bringing all of their father’s original plates with them (1799). In Paris, his children continued the production of his prints.
This approach to image-making in its most fully developed form was chiefly felt in Britain, Germany and France. In a narrow sense, Romanticism came to an end when it morphed into Realism of the mid-19th century. In a broader sense it is still with us since it was the insistence on the rights of the imagination that led eventually to a genuinely modern art.
The development of Romanticism to European Modernism is exemplified by the prints of the other artists selected for this show. In this context, Modernism is defined as a “mode of expression,” or a “peculiarity of style,” a workmanship characteristic of modern times. Artists such as Goya, Whistler and Arms prefer to express themselves in terms of the thoughts and events of those of the past and tradition. Starting with Cézanne, the artists that followed: Renoir, Rouault and Gauguin, chose to create in terms of the thoughts and events of their own times.
European Modernism embodied the continual dialectical struggle between rationalism and intention, or between the particular and the symbolic. In the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, Léger, Braque, Chagall and Miró, the dramatic coexistence of contradictory tendencies is intelligible only if the mind can comprehend the possibility of a conjunction of opposites within a unified expression that is capable of embodying this theoretical conflict.
PABLO PICASSO (Spanish, 1881-1973), Faune dévoilant une dormeuse (Jupiter et Antiope, d'après Rembrandt), [Faun Revealing a Sleeping Woman (Jupiter and Antiope, after Rembrandt)], 1936, etching with aquatint on paper, 12 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches. Boca Raton Museum of Art Permanent Collection 2007.5.19. Bequest of Isadore and Kelly Friedman
Pablo Picasso was an influential master who, besides participating in a characteristic movement of his own day, provided the impetus and inspiration for the distinctive trends that ensued. His work marks the real turning point toward European Modernism. From a romantic realist to Cubist, from Classicist to Surrealist, his encyclopedic nature can be fully appreciated through his personality and relation to his times.
Because of his stature as the indisputable genius of 20th century art, Picasso remains one of a handful of the most important artists in the history of Western art. When he first arrived in Paris (1900), he was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh. He rented a studio at the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre. While there he met writers, artists and his early patrons, Gertrude and Leo Stein. He produced a remarkable series of etchings, The Frugal Repast, The Saltimbanques, and Salome, which showcased his extraordinary ability to assimilate varied influences and his uninhibited will to experiment. It also was at this time that Picasso painted his epoch-making Le Demoiselles d’Avignon which released him from conventional representation.
In 1930, his interest in classical mythology, combined with his passion for bullfights, resulted in his frequent use of the subject of the Minotaur. During 1931-35, he made a series of 100 etchings, the Vollard Suite (3 portraits of Vollard were made later in 1937). An additional etching, Minotauromachy (1935) was to be used 2 years later as the inspiration for his most historically important painting, Guernica. Examples in this exhibit from this Suite, as well as from his 347 Series (1968), provided a fine opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with his creative process.
Along with his painting and sculpture, Picasso was known as well for his prodigious volume of graphic work, which can be especially rewarding to study. Because of the medium’s ability to preserve the stages of decision making on separate sheets, and because of the distinctive look of different techniques combined to create dissonant effects, it exposes the artist’s thought process with particular lucidity. This sense that every moment may be pregnant with unforeseen possibilities is what makes Picasso the archetypal modern artist.
All of the artists represented in this show were extraordinarily versatile and inventive in every phase of their work in addition to being daring and innovative in style and technique. They all produced their most innovative work during the period from the end of the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th, which has been referred to popularly as the birth of European Modernism. The fluidity of the boundaries between Romanticism and Modernism should be apparent in this show. Every culture sees its social and spiritual ideals mirrored in its art. Throughout history the concept of art has repeatedly undergone changes in meaning. Here is but a glimpse of this process.