The Art of Engraving at the Block Art Museum

Allegory of Life by Giorgio Ghisi

Allegory of Life, 1561, by Giorgio Ghisi

On May 1, 2010 I visited the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston to view their art exhibitions The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver and Engraving the Ephemeral. The Brilliant Line traces the development and spread of engraving as an art form across Europe from 1480 through 1650 and was organized by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. The other smaller show, Engraving the Ephemeral is largely based on engravings in the Block Museum of Art's own collection with emphasis on engravings from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Art in The Brilliant Line Exhibit

The Brilliant Line is an exceptional exhibition of engravings. There were a number of pieces by one of my favorite artists - Albrecht Dürer. Works by Dürer included Nemesis, Virgin and Child with a Monkey, The Four Witches, and The Large Horse.

The most impressive work in the show was the large Allegory of Life also known as Raphael's Dream by Giorgio Ghisi and created in 1561. The scope of the image and the detail present were wonderful. The story depicted by the art is also compelling.

Another impressive piece was The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence by Cornelis Cort - 1571. More information about this engraving can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence page.

The most distinctive piece in the show was The Battle of Naked Men created by Domenico Campagnola in 1517. Its jumble of fluid, sketchy, long flowing lines, set it apart from the other engravings in the exhibition.

The strangest piece in the show was Christ's Descent into Limbo created in 1561 by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The scene is based on an episode from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The piece immediately brings to mind the works of Hieronymus Bosch whose fantastic paintings some 60 years earlier of the torments of a hell populated by outlandish creatures are extraordinary.

The Art Engraving the Ephemeral

This smaller exhibit, held in a large classroom off to the side of the main exhibit space, featured works primarily from the Block's own collection. Though substantially smaller, be sure not to miss it. The engravings in this exhibit focused on portrayals of the ephemeral. Examples of the ephemeral would be winds, clouds, smoke, fire, lightning, a ray of sunlight, etc. For example, Mars by Heinrich Aldegrever created in 1529 features the Roman god Mars holding aloft a flaming torch with a burning town and blazing Sun in the background. For more about this engraving see the Art Institute of Chicago Heinrich Aldegrever Mars page

Genius Flying Above a Landscape by Bartel Beham
Genius Flying Above a Landscape by Bartel Beham

One somewhat silly engraving in this exhibit was Genius Flying Above a Landscape from 1520 by Bartel Beham. The composition is dominated by a putto - a winged child which is the personification of Genius. Genius was a being that guided others via the use of omens and dreams.

My favorite work in this exhibition was The Finding of Moses created by Nicolaas de Bruyn in 1601. This large landscape piece contained a wonderful amount of detail and held my attention far longer than any other piece in this exhibit.

In Summary

I have always been attracted to the artistic style of engravings. I find the intricate network of fine lines used to create substance and shadows very appealing. I was sorely tempted to buy the well illustrated exhibition catalogue but at $50 it was more than I was willing to spend.

If you have any interest in engravings, or if you are a fan of art history, or if you are a fan of Durer, then I strongly recommend making the trip over to the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Note that on weekends parking in the nearby lot is free.

Both the The Brilliant Line and Engraving the Ephemeral exhibitions run through June 20, 2010.

Reference Links

Block Museum of Art

Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Evanston IL