Ten years ago, the St. Louis Art Museum carved out an institutional work of art in the World’s Fair-era Cass Gilbert building on Art Hill. This architectural artistry is a bright and comfortable place for research and reflection, dedicated not only to scholars but also to you and to me, the general public. It is called the study room for prints, drawings and photographs and is run by a friendly, accommodating staff upstairs in the East Wing.
For many years the department that serves the museum’s ever-growing and, given innovations and experimentations with works on paper, an ever more complex collection, was a well-dressed itinerant, one that genuflected to the eminences of painting and sculpture as it shuffled off from pillar to post, climbing from the basement of the Cass Gilbert museum building up into an attic.
In the 1970s, an upstairs East Wing space became home to the department, named in honor of museum works-on-paper patrons Sidney and Sadie Cohen. Light — too much of it — was a lingering problem, as were efforts for visitors to find the place. Nevertheless, it provided room for a gallery, offices and storage together in one place. It also provided room for print study, but nothing as swell as what is available now.
The department’s home today offers a realization of the special understanding that comes from a direct, close encounter with original works of art. Such encounters takes the viewer on a how-it-is-made journey. Finally, and most important, is the image itself. Held close, the possibility of establishing a rich relationship presents itself. An appointment is required, but easy to come by. No Ph.D. necessary.
In the decade the print study room has existed, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs has grown apace. To celebrate recent acquisitions, curators Elizabeth Wyckoff and Eric Lutz, along with research assistants Ann-Maree Walker and Leah Chizek have put together an exhibition that is by its nature eclectic — and regularly radiant and informative throughout.
The works on paper collection began with a gift in 1909, when an American printmaker and writer Joseph Pennell gave a group of 13 etchings of scenes of Pittsburgh he’d produced to the museum. The work remains in the permanent collection. The first exhibition of works on paper was mounted the next year, in March 1910. The title of the show was “A Collection of Etchings, Aquatints, Dry Points and Lithographs by Charles F. W. Mielatz.” He was a German-born American printmaker. Like Pennell, he specialized in urban American landscape etchings.
The celebratory recent exhibition hangs in the West Wing, in galleries 234 and 235, spaces many museum goers will recall as part of the old “Special Ex,” the museum’s regular special exhibition space just off Sculpture Hall. These two galleries are now reserved for prints, drawings and photographs, and they serve not only as exhibition salons but also as part of the mainstream of the museum activity, as a clear indication that works on paper share full membership with other works of art in the 33,000-object permanent collection.
The pictures (and books, too) in “A Decade of Collecting” were chosen with an eye to diversity of form and content as well as diversity of authorship and position on the artistic continuum. Rembrandt van Rijn is there with two prints. His “The Three Trees” landscape from 1643 hangs side by side in the show and stretches across time and technology to join in a visual dialog with with Beate Gütschow’s enigmatic, experimental photograph-based work, “LS#17,” completed in 2012. Martin Schongauer’s “Nativity” from the early 1470s provides an interesting contrast to a 20th-century classic, the portrait of a migrant mother and her children from 1936 by Dorothea Lange.
Social issues come to the fore in photographs such as Lange’s — and what a burning, compelling image it must have been, seen in the context of the Great Depression and human horrors it generated. But it lives well beyond the Depression and haunts today, emblematic as it is not only of poverty here at home but human disasters around the world.
Another portrait, by Mickalene Thomas, represents boldly and unequivocally the emergence of the African- American woman as a political and social force.
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The printmaking revolution
Quite often, Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg gets credit for the information revolution of the 15th century, an intellectual and technological maelstrom that swept Western civilization 500 years ago. Printing has direct kinship with the show now at the museum. Gutenberg deserves his laurels, of course. He introduced mechanical moveable type to the West, but as critical to the future and to our lives as that was, a more fundamental technology set the wheels of progress and presses whirring, and that was the development of printing and printmaking themselves.
Printing arrived in the West circa 1400, about four decades before Gutenberg put his press to work. Printing and its employment by Gutenberg and others is unrivaled in the history of knowledge — unrivaled, that is, until Marconi and Bell came along and lighted fuses that fired explosions in the 20th century of radio and television, digital communication and the Internet in the 20th century.
Independent of any point of political or religious or scientific or pseudoscientific view, the world was transformed, torqued, upended, simply because of the universal availability of information. Large numbers of people began to read and as they read came to know far more about the world than ever imagined. Books followed, thanks to Gutenberg, and no longer was a book a singular object but a multiple available to the many rather than the few.
Artists immediately embraced this phenomenon, and their work, rather than being the property of princes and bishops, now became available to the masses. In the span of only a half a century or so, printing made pictures not physical treasures but popular treasures, something to have and to hold and to contemplate., something from which to learn.
Again, how can we — denizens of a world surrounded on all sides by mediums of all sorts with printing on them — how can we imagine the astonishment, the force of revelation striking a man or a woman visually and existentially when she or he first held a work of art close?
Individual works bring all this home all the time — right here for example, words not on paper but in cyberspace, but words that are direct descendants of printing processes invented in the 15th century.
In exhibitions such as “A Decade of Collecting,” we see the astonishing dynamism of the multiple image, and in being dazzled by it, appreciate even more in its application as art, and appreciate the special, almost magical powers of printing as it marches with vigor in new and fascinating directions.
A total of 62 works on paper acquired by the museum in the last 10 years are in the show, which is on view through July 17.