Just about everything you ever wanted to know about French prints of the 16th Century will be found in a sizable survey show newly opened at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center--although, you may not have wanted to know anything at all.
Printmaking flourished as a medium in Renaissance France, especially during the later decades. The exhibition, however, is pretty clear evidence of just how specialized a taste this work is today.
It's hard to know just why. One reason might be the inescapable feeling that French Renaissance art represents, to a significant degree, an imported culture.
Francis I, while warring in Lombardy in northern Italy, acquired an avid taste for Italian culture, and he was soon determined to shake off any lingering traces of medievalism at home. Eager to be up-to-date, as well as to make his ambitious court rival the princely grandeur of neighboring city-states to the south, he spent considerable energy (not to mention funds) wooing Italian artists northward.
Michelangelo and Raphael wouldn't come. The aged Leonardo da Vinci did--only to die there not long after.
More important for what was to follow, Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio also came. The two gifted, younger artists, who had left the classicism of the earlier generation behind in favor of Mannerist elaborations, were commissioned to renovate and decorate the king's hunting lodge at Fontainebleau. Their high-style achievement set a tone that would redound in French art into the next century.
Prints were one way the stylistic news spread. "The French Renaissance in Prints From the Biblio-theque Nationale de France" is a selection of nearly 200 engravings, etchings and woodcuts drawn from the extraordinary collection of the great Parisian library. The prints were chosen by Harvard professor Henri Zerner, who also worked with Marianne Grivel of the University of Rennes, France, and Cynthia Burlingham, curator at UCLA's Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.
Co-organized by the Biblio-theque and the Grunwald, the exhibition does a good job of sorting through very complicated terrain. The curators have given useful shape to a mightily tangled era.
Separate sections of the show are devoted to prints derived from the elaborate decorations at Fontainebleau; to the highly finished (and often mechanistically dull) work of the School of Paris, where printmaking was soon centered; to regional developments in smaller cities; and, to political tracts and propaganda related to the seemingly endless wars between Catholics and Protestants in this most tumultuous of French centuries, when royal rulers sometimes seemed to change with the seasons.
Among the more intriguing of the latter group is a long, horizontal woodcut, printed from three plates and hand-colored, which depicts a meandering procession of 22 religious penitents in identical white robes, their faces hidden beneath hoods. One of them is the king--although you can't tell him apart from all the rest.
The secretive costumes speak of the political peril of religious affiliation. They also level all penitents in the eyes of God, regardless of station.
The show is bracketed at each end by an in-depth look at a single artist--Jean Duvet in the first half of the 16th Century, and Jacques Bellange at the start of the 17th--who both worked in provincial centers far from the Parisian court. (Their distinctiveness was no doubt enhanced by the fact.) With 14 prints by each, it's possible to get a good sense of the work of both.
Individually, the figures in Jean Duvet's engravings tend to be marked by an intense naturalism, but typically they are deployed in fantastic, roiling, densely packed scenes. Duvet illustrated biblical tales from the Book of Revelations in a manner that sent the mundane mortal world spinning.
The prints of Jacques Bellange, by contrast, couldn't be more gossamer, courtly and ethereal. Attenuated, transparent, crystalline forms achieve an otherworldly air.
The miraculous ascension of the crucified Christ is announced by an angel in "The Three Marys at the Tomb" in a manner that renders all of them as ghostly apparitions. Bellange's prints can be nearly as crowded with people and incidents as Duvet's, but his rendering of space is somehow thinned out, like the Venetian Tintoretto's, as if lit by the glow of an inner light.
One provocative element of the show concerns the abundance of popular woodcuts made in Paris, such as the complicated, hand-colored "Judgment of Solomon" (circa 1560) by Mathurin Nicolas. Not much is known about the market for these relatively inexpensive broadsides, moral allegories and didactic narratives, though it likely differed from the courtly audience for engravings.
Compared to the often polite and slickly refined engravings of the School of Paris, the woodcuts can possess a lively freshness that puts you in mind of popular posters or cheeky cartoons. They set you up for Honore Daumier three centuries down the road.
"The French Renaissance in Prints" isn't a show that will send you out the door humming its greatest hits, but it is an admirable scholarly endeavor that fits an essential piece into a European historical puzzle. With its hefty, well-written, 493-page catalogue, and with a tour that will bring the show to New York's Metropolitan Museum in January, then home to Paris in April, it will likely stand as the definitive exhibition of its subject for some time to come.
* UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through Jan. 1. Closed Mondays.