Behind an unmarked (and unremarkable) door, I discovered a small room brimming with the Neville’s collection of prints. Admittedly, I have a special affinity for prints. Personal preferences aside, a collection of prints such as the one the Neville possess is a valuable source of history and art. I immediately made a mental note that at the first opportunity I would delve into this collection and explore all it had to offer. Conveniently, Kevin (the Neville’s curator) and I had been discussing what would replace the Artistic Discovery exhibit that was installed in the same gallery as A Century of Discovery. Originally, A Century of Discovery had incorporated a number of paintings from our collection, but since then, two intervening exhibits had occupied that wall space. Now, the time had come to reconnect those walls more directly with the rest of the gallery, and I knew just the thing.
The task of finding prints that related to A Century of Discovery provided a framework that narrowed and guided my exploration of the prints. My first criterion was that the print be dated to the 19th or early 20th centuries, as to coincide chronologically with the rest of the space. The popularity of prints during that time period meant that we had no shortage of images. The second criterion was that the image be in a condition that lent it to being handled and displayed. When prints arrive in the museum’s collection, they are not always in pristine condition. Corners may be torn, stains may mar the scene, or the image may have simply faded. Whatever their condition, all are equally preserved, however not all are considered ready for display. The final and most difficult task was choosing from among the remaining images a subject—or more likely, subjects—that would form an exhibit that was as cohesive as possible.
Given that the print collection had been out of the public eye for a considerable period of time, one of my priorities was to showcase the breadth of subject matter that it contained. I also sought to find images that were relatable and spoke to as wide an audience as possible. While studying the prints, I began to mentally form small groups of three or four images that shared a theme. Broadly speaking, the images fell into themes such as labor and leisure, town and country, faith and morality, life near the water, and intimate moments. These themes cut across time and geography and help link our lives to those scenes contained in the prints.
Where I could, I found instances where these themes overlapped and bled into one another, naturally linking one group to the next. For example, grouped with the images of faith and morality is a scene from Faust, where Mephistopheles appears to make his famous pact with the titular character. Across the doorway of the gallery, among the scenes of leisure (mostly drinking scenes, as a nod to the beer exhibit in the next room), is The Right Road, in which a young artist has his own decision to make and chooses to leave the life of debauchery behind him to pursue his art. Both characters are at a crossroads and must make life-altering choices. This is but one example of ideas and themes crossing between larger groups of images. Each viewer may find his or her own themes and are encouraged to do so as they study the prints on display.
Finally, besides being aesthetically pleasing images, a print collection such as that on display provides a look at what was considered fine art and, more importantly, how people experienced that art. By and large, printmaking was a method concerned with generating reproductions. A brief look at the exhibit will show that rather than indicating the date of the original work of art—such as Raphael’s tapestry designs or Leighton’s wall painting—the dates of the published reproductions have been listed. Often, an engraver would be hired to copy a famous work of art. From that etching, a publishing company could produce numerous copies to be sold to eager art lovers. Printmaking had long been the primary method with which art and literature were disseminated. During the 19th century, advances in print technology meant that images of famous works became even more easily reproducible and affordable for wider audiences. Perhaps the most groundbreaking of these advancements was made possible by another 19th century invention—photography. By combining the new technology of photography with the centuries old process of engraving, a new means of generating reproductions was invented called photogravure, or photoengraving. This technology had the advantage of capturing details and gradations of tone that were not possible before, however it in essence removed the hand of the engraver.
While the art of engraving is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it once was, viewing prints like those on display can serve as a reminder about how we view art. Technology, more often than not, mediates our experience of art. Today, we often take this for granted. Instead of a sheet of paper run through a press, we are more familiar with glowing screens through which almost any image can be accessed. The explosion digital technology has displaced the media of only a few decades ago, making things possible that could never have been imagined before. Technology and art have long been linked, and as one advances, the other expands and evolves. The images we encounter—no matter the generation—and how we experience them are a critical factor in our perception of the world around us. However you may feel about art, old or new, I think it is worthwhile to ruminate for a few moments on your own experience of art and how technology may factor into that relationship.
Jordan Koel joined the Neville staff in May 2014. He holds both a B.A. and M.A. in the history of art and architecture. Jordan works closely with Kevin Cullen to assist in research, curation, and the installation of exhibits. His interest in the history of art stems from a curiosity about objects that are perceived as standing outside of the ordinary. While Jordan’s most recent research focused on early medieval sacred art, his areas of interest span a wide range of time periods and mediums.