A blast from the past
Acid on Metal, the cutting-edge exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, combines acid rock with heavy metal music in an avant-garde multimedia presentation that ingeniously serves up MFAH assistant curator Dena Woodall’s latest artistic triumph.
OK, so maybe the part about the music isn’t quite accurate. (The rest of the exhibition’s title is: The Art of Etching and Aquatint.)
But now that you’re interested, I just have to tell you that the MFAH exhibition with the uber-cool name features exceptionally appealing works in etching and aquatint from different phases of time by the equivalent of rock-star celebrities in the world of art.
These etchings don’t present the conventionally pretty face to the world. There are no blue-sky postcard, easy-on-the-eyes pictures here. This is a different kind of story: A parade of portrayals of fascinating analytical thoughts.
I’m talking about big-name artists who always get top billing, like Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Goya, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Paul Klee, Edward Hopper, Pablo Picasso and more. Here are all the heavy hitters in the field — the Albert Pujols of their respective times, you might say (especially at this time, if you happen to hail from that quintessential baseball town, St. Louis.)
Even if you think you don’t like art without color, oh yes you will, in this case. These etchings are so intricately worked, so adept at projecting unsettling moods, you’ll find yourself staring long and contemplatively into their shadowy depths, even if you’re a color-wild Fauvist like me (think Matisse, Dufy, Derain, and your favorite childhood Crayolas).
There’s so much detail and mystery packed into each of these pieces, I offer fair warning: You’re not likely to be lulled from a work-crazed, fevered state into a serene mood of peaceful bliss, which is the promised province of the dreamy Impressionists upstairs in the Beck Building.
On the other hand, you may well find a contemplative visit to this exhibition to be a therapeutic exercise, diverting your intense focus and allowing your subconscious mind to relax and help unsnarl a troubling issue a little more easily when you return to it.
Not conventionally pretty
These etchings don’t present the conventionally pretty face to the world. There are no blue-sky postcard, easy-on-the-eyes pictures here. This is a different kind of story: A parade of portrayals of fascinating analytical thoughts. In fact, they can present a perspective that is more satisfying to the eye than actual photographic images of a particular scene or object or person because so much personal meaning is visibly invested — literally and painstakingly etched — into each of them.
The first etching that attracted my interest was “The Rape of Proserpina (Abduction on a Unicorn)” (1516) by Albrecht Dürer, as I had long been familiar with this German artist’s wonderfully complex woodcuts. The wall text gives credit where due in saluting the remarkable contributions of Dürer, noting that he “stands as a mighty pillar in the history of Western printmaking” and that he was known for his “densely packed woodcuts and engravings of unsurpassed technical acuity.”
That’s a delicious feeling to have when you walk into a new art exhibition, isn’t it? I call it “Happiness on the Installment Plan.”
This etching depicts the maiden, Proserpina, being carried off to the underworld by Hades, who is pulling her up onto the back of a unicorn. You could stand and stare at this etching for hours, and you still wouldn’t be quite sure that you’d caught all the detail. Surprisingly, the etching was made “from a single bite in the acid bath,” Woodall discloses in the beautifully written, extremely instructive, free (!) brochure that accompanies this brilliant little exhibition, which runs through Nov. 27.
There is so much detail, so finely etched, throughout Acid on Metal, it was initially hard for me to move from one to another in sequence, even though it only encompasses one room. There is so much quality by so many great artists, so many things to admire, so many discoveries to make (for example, check out the display of tools used in the art of etching), and I only had so much time to spend in the museum that day before attending to more mundane obligations.
That’s a delicious feeling to have when you walk into a new art exhibition, isn’t it? You find that it offers so much, you can’t take it all in at one time, so you now have a real treasure trove to which you can return time after time. I call it “Happiness on the Installment Plan.” As some would say, “It’s like money in the bank,” only better, because that’s not what it’s about.
The exhibition also offers multiple perspectives on the way people thought and lived in different times. For example, I can really get the picture of urbanized London in the mid-1800s from two well-chosen slices of life portrayed by Whistler in “Eagle Wharf” and “The Lime Burner,” both dated 1859.
It’s from the same era, but I love Adolphe Appian’s “Fisherman in a Rowboat at the Edge of a River” (1887) for its timeless moodiness. When I look at it, I feel that I am the individual who is sitting in that boat. I am alone, content, becalmed by the bell-jar silence of a spilled-ink night that is softened by the moonlight shining behind a scrim of passing clouds onto the water.
Then I sense the opposite mood — of a slow, simmering boil, restrained just beneath the surface — that is summoned up by Käthe Kollwitz in “Beim Dengeln” (“Whetting the Knife,” 1905), which depicts a peasant sharpening a scythe. This is a striking face and portrayal of the character of a careworn but clearly powerful old man. He has a deep furrow, etched by time, hard work and worry, between his pale, seemingly empty eyes, which are focused above his prominent nose on the dangerously huge blade he is carefully sharpening. This picture speaks volumes.
The text on the wall next to this etching explains that the woman who crafted it was Germany’s foremost printmaker, and her work often expressed empathy for the less fortunate by showing the victims of hunger, poverty and war in her time. I was captivated by this work, executed by an obviously highly talented artist whose work I had not known before my eyes were opened wide by this viscerally gripping depiction.
Later, inspired by both the wall text and the etching, I ran a computer search and discovered that the artist’s husband was a doctor who cared for poor, working-class people in Berlin in the early 1900s. On encountering these underprivileged individuals through his practice, which was located near their home, Kollwitz began to portray the working people, whom she perceived as beautiful and courageous and interesting, in stark contrast to the boring bourgeoisie. Through this evolving experience, which seems to have been akin to reporting uncomfortable truths, the artist showed her own strength of character.
And here’s a nice note on how the lessons of history never seem to be learned by succeeding generations, given the current global economic crisis: Paul Klee’s 1929 “Old Man Counting” (“Rechnender Greis,”) an ironically amusing, cartoonish depiction of a bald man with a daffy smile, counting on his fingers. The wall text alludes to the artistic implication of the “greed and obsession” of the old man, who is “counting his possessions in a barren landscape.”
There are so many instructive stories, told so well within this exhibition’s umbrella tale, which depicts the development of etching and aquatint from the 16th century through the present.
Immersed in this pensive exhibition, the viewer senses that what lies in these shadows has the potential to more greatly intrigue and stimulate than what stands in the light. I recommend visiting Acid on Metal on a day when you’re in the mood, and you’ve got the time, to wholly focus your attention on each elaborately etched, intriguing work of art.