Richard Earlom, An Iron Forge, 1778
In the digital age, all visual effects seem easily achievable -- but that wasn't always the case. Before the 17th century, printmakers couldn't truly represent tone, shades of gray. To create the illusion of shadows or, say, the three-dimensional contours of the human body, they resorted to linear techniques like cross-hatching.
All that changed thanks to the Dutch artist Wallerant Vaillant and Prince Rupert of Pfalz. They invented the mezzotint, a printmaking technique that allows for rich tonal shading and deep, velvety black and grays. Because of these wonderful dark tones, the French dubbed mezzotints manièr noir, or dark manner. The Chazen show provides a good explanation of the "hows" of mezzotints and has some of the tools used to create them on display.
While this small show in the museum's Mayer Gallery is not an exhaustive history of mezzotints, it is a satisfying whirlwind tour. It begins with early examples by Wallerant Vaillant himself and continues through the 1990s. In the early 19th century, lithography pretty much usurped mezzotints as a way to create subtle gradations of tone. But even today, some artists are drawn to the luscious effects possible in this tricky and labor-intensive medium (including Madison artist Jayne Reid Jackson, who I wish was included here).
It's astounding to see the minute details and subtle variations in tone captured by some of these artists. The English artist John Martin's The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1824-26) is a tour de force of technique. If you're not impressed by it, you're probably not impressed by much. Although it's only about 8 by 10 inches, Martin has incorporated countless well-muscled bodies plummeting into a craggy hell (with rock formations that are oddly reminiscent of the Dells).
On a more modern, pared-down note, there's Craig McPherson's Rear Window from 1984, a spare image of a city at night in which light pours out of a single window. It's got an appealing, Hopper-esque loneliness to it (think of Hopper's Nighthawks and how it hinged on the contrast between light streaming out of the diner and the darkness outside).
Czech artist Jiri Anderle's Cruel Game for a Man (1976) shows how mezzotints can be used for social and political commentary. It's a complex, large, technically masterful print that is inked in several different colors. Anderle confronts the viewer with a montage of disturbing imagery: Nazi soldiers, dead bodies, ruined buildings and more, all under an eerie, impassive orb that could either be the moon or the earth.
Other subjects in Prints of Darkness include portraits, still lifes and landscapes. Just as the term "painting" is vast and includes oils, watercolors and many other mediums, "printmaking" is also vast. The Chazen's show is a good chance to take a focused look at a specific technique.
Chazen curator Andrew Stevens will give a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1.