Sometimes a single image just won't do. Printmakers often work in a series, enabling them to literally explore variations with their subject matter and technique.
The Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit "Print By Print: Series from Durer to Lichtenstein" showcases such print series done between the 15th century and the present day. Whether lined up along the wall or arranged in grids, the 300 exhibited prints will keep your eyes moving along.
The serial format is especially appropriate for printmakers who are visually interpreting Biblical or other literary source material. Their pictorial storytelling conveys key scenes and themes in a viewer-friendly way.
One of the great printmakers of all time, the German artist Albrecht Durer, is represented by a series he did in the late 1490s. "The Apocalypse" comprises 16 woodcuts depicting such Book of Revelation-related imagery as the Four Angels of Death, Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Opening of the Seventh Seal, and the eternally provocative Whore of Babylon.
Durer was surely motivated by the belief common in his era that the year 1500 might mark the end of the world, because reaching that round number carried symbolic weight for a culture that felt it had been around for a long time and might be ready to meet its maker.
The emotional urgency of Durer's religious imagery is not at the expense of the detail he expended on everything from the densely incised lines in the figures' garments to the crowding together of figures engaged in end-of-the-world battles.
Another religious story gets told in the English artist John Martin's "Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'" Created in the late 1820s, these 24 mezzotints illustrate John Milton's lengthy 17th-century poem. Among the visualized episodes is "Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council," so it's safe to assume that Martin knew what would grab a viewer's attention.
Stylistically, Martin favors nocturnal scenes set in ominous caverns and landscapes. The prevailing dense black tones are strategically broken by sharply pinpointed beams of light that draw your eyes to Satan and other players in this moral drama.
Dark imagery serves a more secular purpose in the 16 etchings that collectively make up the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi's 1761 series "Imaginary Prisons." These architectural fantasies depict enormous interior spaces so dimly lit that you find yourself trying to make out classical building features within this murky space.
Moving to outdoor scenes, a mid-18th-century series of 31 etchings by the Italian artist Canaletto, "Views, Some Based on Real Places, Some Imagined," is notable for how the artist provides the same degree of realistic detail to both the actual scenes and the made-up ones. Avoiding the obvious landmarks in a city such as Venice, Canaletto instead offers glimpses of ordinary buildings and views that one would be more likely to see on one's daily rounds.
Besides serving literary and landscape purposes, print series are ideally suited to serve the needs of design itself. The Flemish artist Hans Collaert did a series of 10 engravings in 1581, "Design for Pendants," whose ornamental patterns were used by goldsmiths looking for jewelry designs.
Just as Collaert had pragmatic reasons for exploring variations in a pattern, other artists also wanted to explore the practical possibilities of patterning.
The 20th-century French artist Sonia Delaunay is represented by an eye-popping 1930 series titled "Compositions, Colors, Ideas," which served as the inspiration for wallpaper and fabric designs. This gridded installation on the museum wall features 40 color stencils whose juxtaposed abstract patterns and assertive colors are so festive that it's easy to see how they would give ideas to modern-minded interior designers.
Moving closer to the present, the American artist Ed Ruscha has a 1970 series of six screenprints that's more interested in the various inks deployed than in the thematic message and design. Although the prints in "News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews and Dues" individually spell out those words in an Old English typeface conjuring up the artist's response to his time spent in England, the main point of interest is his experimentation with unusual ink sources to produce the resulting earth tones in these color prints.
Ruscha's sources include axle grease, caviar, chocolate syrup, coffee and, yes, squid ink. Not only didn't the world end in Durer's day, but it has gone on to produce Ruscha's weird recipes.
"Print By Print: Series from Durer to Lichtenstein" remains through March 25 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, at 10 Art Museum Drive, in Baltimore. Call 443-573-1700 or go to http://www.artbma.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now