Chazen Museum of Art
Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975), Prodigal Son, 1939, lithograph, plate: 10 3/16 x 13 1/4 in. Gift of Amanda K. Berls, 1978.256
You could say that the printmaker's art is the original mass medium. Centuries before the Internet, printmaking was a relatively quick and inexpensive way to share ideas and images, some of them quite provocative. Prints can range from relatively simple images meant chiefly to convey a message to jaw-dropping feats of technical skill.
The Chazen Museum of Art draws from its permanent collection for the new "The Loaded Image: Printmaking as Persuasion" exhibit, which runs though Sept. 25. Works included span half a millennium, from a 1470s Martin Schongauer engraving to a visual response to the Vietnam War by William Weege, who taught printmaking at the UW for more than 30 years.
Those two images point to a recurring theme in this small but rich exhibition: war. Schongauer, a German artist, added grisly touches to The Battle of St. James at Clavijo. In the foreground, a decapitated body still holds a spear; the man's head lolls by his feet, looking remarkably peaceful. The frenzy of battle (in this case, a legendary ninth-century battle between Moors and Christians) is belied by Schongauer's tight composition and attention to minute detail.
The 1967 Weege print, called Hell No I Won't Go! takes the opposite approach, eschewing fine detail for a dramatically pared-down image against blank white space. It's a high-impact composition with a clear point of view: a naked little boy shields his face, spurning the M-16 lying the ground next to him. While some might find Weege's message simplistic, it's visually striking and a good example of artists' contributions to the anti-war movement.
Other political and social themes that appear in the show include workers' rights and virtues like charity and temperance. And it's not all grim: a number of humorous prints are included, including a couple that poke fun of foolish old men tricked by greedy young women interested only in their money.
The exhibition is packed with big names from the Chazen's collection: Albrecht Dürer, Goya, Honoré Daumier, and classic American artists like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry.
Curry, who was once Artist in Residence at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is represented here by a print predating his UW stint. Coyote Stealing a Pig, from 1927, presents a dramatic battle between an enormous mama pig and the two coyotes attempting to snatch her piglet. But, as the museum notes, Curry also offers an allegory of robber barons taking land in the West.
"The Loaded Image" proves that, for centuries, artists have grappled with the political, social and moral issues of their times. Far from sitting in an ivory tower, they've weighed in with everything from bawdy wit to deadly seriousness.