"The Darker Side of Light"
The Impressionists’ sunny landscapes have partly obscured the history of 19th-century European art: a history dominated by violence, depression, addiction and lost gloves. At least, that’s the premise of “The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900.”
Curated by Peter Parshall of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this exhibition brings together more than 100 works intended not for public display but for “quiet contemplation” by private collectors. Though there are drawings and sculptures on view, most of these pieces are black-and-white prints; the Smart provides a handy glossary for those unfamiliar with the medium.
Considering how melancholy or racy 19th-century European painting can be—see the Art Institute of Chicago’s Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge (1892/95)—the darkness of “The Darker Side of Light” doesn’t come off as particularly revelatory. An 1887 Albert Besnard etching depicts morphine addicts? We may need another glass of absinthe to get over the shock.
What’s truly notable about this exhibition is the quality and diversity of its prints. Since their small scale and level of detail demand viewers’ concentrated attention, they can address engrossing themes such as death or romantic obsession in complex ways: The lively illustrations and surreal images in Max Klinger’s ten-part series A Glove (pictured, 1881) make this tale of a lady’s glove found and lost by a young man seem sweet and humorous, even as it flirts with the taboo subject of fetishism. Charles Meryon crams so many perfectly rendered buildings into his views of Paris that he wearies the viewer’s eye—evoking the overwhelming nature of city life. Käthe Kollwitz’s Self-Portrait at the Table (c. 1893) comes off as an unusually casual, candid portrayal of the artist, whose pinched face is one of the few bright spots in her gloomy room.
The intimacy generated between print and viewer makes the medium well-suited to domestic dramas, which figure prominently in “The Darker Side of Light.” Yet the exhibition also contains plenty of scenes set outdoors, such as Ludovic Napoléon Lepic’s stormy seascape Shore of the Escaut: Turbulent Sky (1870/76). According to the wall text, Lepic was able to create more than 90 angst-ridden variations on the piece by wiping the ink from his etching plate differently each time he printed it.
Such fascinating anecdotes make us glad these works get a public showing. Given that they weren’t meant to be hung on walls beneath the nonstop glare of museum lighting, however, it’s too bad we have no other way to experience them. The Smart Museum provides more tables and chairs than usual in the (somberly painted) gallery, so visitors can sit and contemplate the catalog. But as we strolled through the show alongside noisy families and University of Chicago students, we found the recommended state of quiet introspection hard to achieve.