Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum, in MOBIA, NYC

Rembrandt van Rijn. Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (The Three Crosses), 1653–55. Drypoint with burin on cream laid paper. Jansma Collection, Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2007.11

Just in time for Print Week, the exhibition Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum opened at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City, and it is certain not to disappoint the most discerning enthusiast of old master prints. The exhibition includes The Engraved Passion (1507-1513) by Albrecht Dürer, The Flight into Egypt (1750-1753) folio by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Illustrations of the Book of Job series (1825) by William Blake, and The Lord’s Prayer series (1921) by Max Pechstein, as well as a number of outstanding etchings by Rembrandt, and one by Édouard Manet. A few prints and accompanying printing plates from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Brooklyn Museum, and rare Bibles from the American Bible Society’s Collection complete the display.

Besides showing that the Bible influenced artists for many centuries, and providing a basic explanation of the complex processes involved in creating these images, this exhibition can also serve as an excellent illustration of the way motives for making prints have evolved through the centuries. It is particularly visible in comparing the four series of prints included in the show: the work of Dürer, Tiepolo, Blake and Pechstein. These series are similar in size, format and presentation, but the purposes for which they were conceived range from disseminating canonical doctrine through a large edition of multiples, to creating a series of beautiful images for a wealthy patron and collector, and finally to personal exploration of the text, where the visual aspect of printmaking matters more than the ability to reproduce the print in an edition.

Dürer’s series of sixteen engravings follows canonical moments included in depicting the suffering and death of Christ. The entire story, which would be very familiar to his patrons, can be read through these amazingly detailed images, which include such recognizable symbols of the Christian doctrine as crucifixion, deposition, and resurrection. While the artist’s drawing style and superb engraving technique are on the forefront of Northern Renaissance innovation, these images do not claim to provide an insight into the artist’s personal readings of the subject, his faith or his struggles. These engravings were printed in a large edition of identical multiples that was disseminated throughout Europe as testimony both of the artist’s skill and of the Christian faith.

Tiepolo’s Flight into Egypt, a series of twenty-four etchings dedicated to prince-bishop Carl Philipp von Greiffenklau of Würzburg, is based on one verse in the Gospel of Matthew that is of comparatively little importance in the large scope of the Christian doctrine. However, it is a subject that has been popular with artists for centuries. In Tiepolo’s case, the subject becomes almost an excuse for drawing exotic settings and billowing wings of angels. These twenty-four images depict Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, seen from different angles in a variety of landcapes. Tiepolo’s soft, rich, feathery line, which is so appropriate for representing feathers of the wings and palm tree branches, and which can only be achieved by the technique of etching, is the main attraction in these images.

On the other hand, Blake’s series of twenty-one engravings on the Book of Job is an extremely close and personal reading of the text. While the story of Job is well known, it was not always the most prominent or the most represented story of the Bible. Blake’s images include verses from the text and their literal representations alongside distinct symbols common in his work. The artist’s technique of engraving links this series to the classical tradition of Dürer, while the decidedly unclassical idiosyncracy of the figures’ proportions and compositions gives the images a very modern air and makes them a perfect liason between the old master prints on the left wall of the gallery, and Manet and Pechstein’s work on the facing right wall.

Like Blake, Pechstein reads one passage closely, and creates line by line interpretation of it while incorporating text into his series of twelve woodcuts. Is it personal faith we are witnessing in these images, or a personal struggle with faith? In Our Father Which Art in Heaven, the image of the omnipotent and omniscient God who holds thunder and lightning in his hands, and has a large all-seeing eye on his forehead, is impressively terrifying. The men in Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread bow piously over a table with a single scrawny fish they must share, while the other images emphasize sin and suffering with distorted, angular features carved by Pechstein’s knife into the wood block. The personal portrayal of this theme is underscored by the fact that all images are hand-colored by Pechstein; like many prints of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, these woodcuts are not created for the sake of producing multiples, but because the technique of making the print provided the best medium for the artist’s expression.

While my analysis so far may lead the reader to believe that deep and personal reading of the text was a simple result of a chronological evolution, the prints of Rembrandt will dispel such notions.  It is well known that Rembrandt’s work strongly influenced the development of printmaking of the nineteenth and twentieth century. In his prints, Rembrandt gives warm, deep, personal interpretations to single moments that captured his attention as they related to his life, struggles and concerns. The exhibition at MOBIA includes a proof of The Three Crosses (1653-1655) that can never be excluded from canon of drypoint any more than its subject can be from canon of Christianity. Here, the artist takes advantage of his technique to the fullest as he reworks the image to the point where the original, more traditional composition of the early proofs is completely obscured, but the meaning and the artist’s understanding of this pivotal Biblical subject is emphasized.

Whether one visits this exhibition in order to admire the impeccably made masterpieces of printmaking, to learn more about print history, or to meditate on the subject matter, one won’t be disappointed. Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum will be on view at MOBIA through January 11, 2015.

[Editor’s note: All images courtesy of the Museum of Biblical Art ]

Albrecht Dürer. The Man of Sorrows Standing by the Column, from The Engraved Passion, 1509. Engraving on paper. Jansma Collection, Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2007.16a

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. The Holy Family Descending a Forest Path, Near a Flock and Some Shepherds, plate 21 from The Flight into Egypt (Idee pittoresche sopra la fuga in Egitto), 1750–53. Etching on off-white laid paper. Jansma Collection, Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2012.40

William Blake. The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind, from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825 (published 1826). Engraving on India paper chine collé on wove paper. Jansma Collection, Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2014.1n

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2 Responses to “Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum, in MOBIA, NYC”

  1. Brent Bond says:

    Is there a catalog for this exhibit?

  2. Jenya Frid says:

    I believe there is an app, but the best way to find out about this and the catalog would be to contact MOBIA.