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Volume 95, Issue 1
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A Smart exhibit is born
Two years before the Smart hangs one of its Mellon Project shows, the brainstorming begins.

Elizabeth Rodini, PhD'95, curator of Mellon Projects at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, isn't above having a good laugh at ugly artwork. Neither is Rebecca Zorach, AM'94, PhD'99, a Collegiate assistant professor in humanities who is co-curating a Mellon Project to be exhibited in autumn 2004.

IMAGE:  Worth the wall space?  Curators Elizabeth Rodini (left) and Rebecca Zorach debate including a Durer print in an upcoming show.
Worth the wall space? Curators Elizabeth Rodini (left) and Rebecca Zorach debate including a Dürer print in an upcoming show.
Photograph by Dan Dry


"Aren't those noses awful?"

Standing above a box of prints one afternoon this summer, the pair giggle like high-school girls. They aren't being art snobs-in fact, the noses on the angelic host surrounding an unnamed pope in this particular print are awful, potato-shaped things. It's just that, after two hours in the understated lighting and quiet air of the museum's Kanter Educational Study Room, looking at centuries-old pieces of parchment paper bearing mechanical reproductions of paintings and frescoes, Rodini and Zorach have gotten a bit punchy.

"OK, we're wasting time," Rodini sighs and returns box No. 119, Italian, to the storage room, where she retrieves box No. 116, English. Punchiness, Rodini notes apologetically, comes with the territory of exhibition planning, especially in the early stages when a curator is still narrowing down the topics to cover within a broad theme, long before deciding exactly what will be in the show.

The purpose of this exhibition, which for now Zorach is calling The Reproductive Print in Early Modern Europe, is to examine the functions of printmaking in Europe's first age of mechanical reproduction, about 1500- 1850. As printmaking technology developed in the 16th century, prints were used to record and reproduce paintings and other works of art, such as frescoes, sculptures, and antiquities. And for the first time, widespread audiences could "vicariously enjoy" images. Mechanical printmaking also was an inexpensive way for artists to advertise their works-and for plagiarists to copy them.

Early in 2003 Zorach will gather a small group of advanced art-history graduate students whose own studies focus on printmaking. They'll research an initial selection of 50-60 prints, narrowing that down to 30-40, and help Zorach research and write a scholarly catalog to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

With so many possibilities in the Smart's print collection-and relatively sparse background information on them-the difficult part, Zorach says, "is deciding when we have a productive line of research for a graduate student." Today she and Rodini are searching for trailheads: works that might fit the "vicarious enjoyment" theme and merit more legwork. It's the first time Zorach has curated a show and also her first time thinking like a scout leader rather than one of the troop: "It's an interesting mental shift."

If Zorach is learning something, then the Mellon Projects must be working. The Reproductive Print will be the ninth in an ongoing series of exhibitions funded by several gifts from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 1992. In each, the Smart has collaborated with University faculty members-from art history to English to Germanic studies-to create exhibitions around which courses or student projects are designed. The projects give students practical experience in curating and catalog writing-both résumé builders that art-history Ph.D.s, Rodini notes, crave.

Zorach was initially inspired to mount a Mellon Project by Marcantonio Raimondi's famed 16th-century engravings after Raphael's paintings-as well as Raimondi's unauthorized copies of Dürer's works. (Whether the Smart will borrow examples of these is still undecided.) Raimondi's engravings and other early prints, Zorach says, brought forth "the issue of authenticity" and sparked insecurities about intellectual property. "You get so many people contributing to a project"-the painter or collector who commissioned the print, the engraver, the printmaker, the print seller-"that it's difficult to say where authorship ends and begins."

Looking at The Crucifixion, after Tintoretto (1741), a 4-1/2-foot-wide earth-toned tryptich of woodcut prints, Rodini comments, "These are a classic example in some ways-and the format is so big. They have wall presence, which is something to keep in mind. Lots of dinky prints can get exhausting."

"The technique is interesting. And it adds color," Zorach agrees. The prints bear a British-looking crest with the names John Baptist Jackson and Richard Boyle. She pencils the call numbers into her notebook as Rodini wonders at engraver Jackson's assignment from Boyle, the collector. "Did Boyle take Jackson on his Grand Tour, to make a collection of the works he'd seen?"

Beyond their subject matter and impact on the art world, Zorach is intrigued by the role prints played in the larger society of early modern Europe. Printmaking, she notes in her exhibition proposal, whetted the appetite for antiquity in northern Europe. Did prints of religious subjects similarly incite worship? And did devotional prints acquire higher status if they were reproductions of famous paintings?

Through her Mellon Project, she hopes to find out.
- Sharla A. Stewart





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