Exhibitions exploring Rembrandt’s etchings and Japanese printmaking will mark the new year at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum
By Amanda Koehn
The new exhibit on the 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s etchings at Allen Memorial Art Museum was born out of curiosity about artwork that had once been safeguarded at the Oberlin College museum for larger Northeastern institutions during World War II due to fears bombing of a major city could destroy them.
While Rembrandt’s prints were among works held at the Allen Memorial Art Museum during the war, interest in those works in particular developed into an exploration of Rembrandt’s history as a printmaker, and then into the role the etchings have come to play at Oberlin and other academic institutions.
“I think (the etchings) reward close looking,” says Andaleeb Badiee Banta, the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s curator of European and American art. “That’s a big thing that academic museums have always promoted – to have students of any background come and really slow down and take their time and look closely.”
Banta joined Cornell University’s Andrew C. Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator of Earlier European and American Art at the Ithaca, N.Y.-based school’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, in curating “Lines of Inquiry: Learning from Rembrandt’s Etchings,” which will be on view from Feb. 6 through May 13, 2018 in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Stern Gallery West.
The 60 etchings in the exhibit, some of which reside permanently at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and others borrowed from other academic institutions, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and private collections, depict a variety of subject matter, including religious and historical scenes, portraits, landscapes and everyday life in Amsterdam during Rembrandt’s lifetime.
Etching is a printmaking method that uses chemicals to cut lines into a metal plate that holds ink to create an image. In one such piece included in the exhibit, “Christ Healing the Sick,” a crowd of people are shown standing and sitting around Jesus Christ, who has what appears to be a radiating light surrounding his head to draw attention to him. What’s striking about this image, however, is not Christ himself, but the detail in each surrounding person’s facial expressions and poses that illustrate where they may fit into society, their possible feelings and whether they are suffering. The printing process creates an image where some faces are more clearly etched out and finely detailed than others, giving the viewer many nuances to explore in a single work.
That piece was also referred to as the “Hundred Guilder Print” because that’s how much money it brought in during Rembrandt’s lifetime, which Banta says was an impressive amount.
Banta emphasizes the exhibit’s focus on high-quality impressions, as many prints can be made from the same plate. Rembrandt also would alter his plates so parts of an image would disappear and new facets would appear in various prints from the same original plate, which Banta says the exhibit will highlight.
Moreover, the exhibit is meant to demonstrate the many ways people can appreciate or investigate Rembrandt’s work, whether their interests involve understanding his historical period, analyzing his technique, wanting to see the concept of the branding in his pieces (papers were typically given a sort of proprietary watermark) or gleaning insight into his understanding of the human condition. Also, it reminds viewers that Rembrandt works aren’t only in major museums and have had a role in educating American students for more than a century.
“I’m hoping they will take away from it that really excellent Rembrandt prints aren’t only in major municipal museums, they are also in these often-small academic museums in unexpected places,” she says.
Japanese printmaking also highlighted
Oberlin received its first collection of Japanese prints as a donation from Cleveland educator Charles Olney when he died in 1904 – before the art museum, which is celebrating its centennial this year, even opened. Then, in 1950 it received a comprehensive collection of prints from the Japanese Edo period (1603-1868) from Mary A. Ainsworth, a graduate of the school and traveler to Japan in the early 1900s.
While Oberlin has used such works for educational purposes in the past, from Feb. 6 through May 27, the Allen Memorial Art Museum will host its first comprehensive exhibit to include prints from those collections – as well as many others in Oberlin’s possession that chronicle Japanese printmaking history from the late 1600s until the 1980s – that have never before been on display.
“It’s simultaneously a history of Japanese prints and the history of our collecting of Japanese prints through these very generous gifts over the past decades,” says Kevin R. E. Greenwood, the Joan L. Danforth curator of Asian art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.
The 102-piece “A Century of Asian Art at Oberlin: Japanese Prints,” to be on view in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripin Gallery, will feature mostly color wood block prints but will also include etchings, mezzotints and a lithograph. It also includes works by some of the most well-known Japanese printmakers in history, Greenwood says, including Katsushika Hokusai, who created the famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” print, and Utagawa Hiroshige.
An 1856 Hiroshige color wood block print, “Fuji from Surugacho,” depicts people around a shopping district in Edo, which today is Tokyo, with a strikingly large and seemingly omnipresent Mount Fuji overlooking it. The symmetry, scale and bold color scheme makes viewers feel as though they are being invited into that world.
Greenwood says that particular print used chemical dyes that were newly imported from Europe that changed the game for Japanese printmakers in terms of their ability create works that were less sensitive to light and moisture. Also, it depicts ordinary people, or the merchant class, with whom the printmaking medium arose in Japan.
During that period, merchants often had wealth, but there were restrictions on where they could spend it – only those of the samurai class were allowed to have luxuries like silk and gold. Thus, merchants found new ways to spend money.
“They ended up spending it in entertainment, in restaurants, in theater – and that was the world that gave rise to prints,” Greenwood says. “So, it came out of the world of regular people.”
Generally, however, the exhibit aims to immerse museum guests in that world and into the craftsmanship of Japanese artists through several centuries in a way the Allen Memorial Art Museum has not yet chronicled.
“I hope (visitors) will take away from this exhibit a sense of the incredible creativity, the amazing craftsmanship and just this phenomenal, really uniquely Japanese industry that has survived for hundreds of years and continues down to the present day,” Greenwood says. CV
Allen Memorial Art Museum
An opening reception for “Lines of Inquiry: Learning from Rembrandt’s Etchings” and “A Century of Asian Art at Oberlin: Japanese Prints” will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 87 N. Main St., Oberlin. “Lines of Inquiry” will remain on view through May 13 and “Japanese Prints” through May 27. For updates about related programming, visit oberlin.edu/amam.
Lead image: “Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1639; etching, with touches of drypoint, retouched in black chalk. Collection of Yale University Art Gallery. Transmitted light photograph courtesy of Theresa Fairbanks-Harris. Image courtesy of the Allen Memorial Art Museum.