"The Brilliant Line"
Engravings aren’t just for elite collectors. You’re probably carrying several in your wallet, courtesy of the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing. “The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver 1480–1650” isn’t about the Benjamins; its artists, who include pioneering printmakers Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533), created biblical scenes, classical myths and portraits of wealthy patrons. But this exhibition offers an excellent overview of a ubiquitous medium that’s more complicated than the plot of National Treasure.
Curated by Emily J. Peters, “The Brilliant Line,” which traveled to Evanston from the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), presents almost 85 works by Dürer, van Leyden and other Renaissance and Baroque engravers from Western Europe. The Block Museum supplements “The Brilliant Line” with “Engraving the Ephemeral,” a small but charming exhibition of prints from its own collection depicting temporary, weather-related phenomena.
A vitrine in “The Brilliant Line” contains an engraver’s tools: a copperplate, on which the artist engraves an image; a sand-filled pad, on which the artist rests and rotates the copperplate; and a burin, a metal tool that carves lines into the copperplate. RISD associate professor Andrew Stein Raftery uses them all as he demonstrates the engraving process in an accompanying video, which breaks down each difficult step. Raftery traces and carves an illustration—in reverse—on a copperplate, scrapes off the resulting metal shavings (burrs), inks the plate by hand and runs it through a printing press. He re-creates a 16th-century drawing by Francesco Primaticcio, echoing the way many printmakers in “The Brilliant Line” used engraving to reproduce paintings by artists such as Raphael, Titian and Rubens.
In her fine exhibition catalog, Peters explains that engraving emerged in southern Germany in the 1430s, developed by metalsmiths who recorded their ornamental designs on paper. Drawing techniques influenced their work as they discovered new ways to convey tones and textures solely through lines and dots. Even an influential genius like Dürer found this constraint challenging. Though the Nuremberg-based artist improved his renderings of the human figure between The Four Witches (1497) and Nemesis (ca. 1501–02), it still took him several months to complete the latter image of a goddess of retribution hovering over a meticulously detailed village.
When we examine Nemesis with one of the museum’s magnifying glasses, even Dürer’s tiny houses look perfect and complete. Later artists relied on optical illusions to generate visual effects with greater economy, however. Wall texts about the “swelling line” and other refinements go into details only a printmaker might appreciate, but anyone can marvel at the engravers’ bold compositions and naturalistic light and shadow.
Early modern engravers seem to have been obsessed with musculature as well—and by musculature, we mean buttocks. But even demure images such as Anna Maria van Schurman’s Self Portrait (pictured, 1633) show how well engraving can capture hair and clothing. The Dutch artist is one of a refreshing number of women in “The Brilliant Line.” While most address the same types of religious or military subjects as their male peers, Dutch artist Geertruydt Roghman saw a different potential for engraving due to its reproducibility. Her print A Woman Cleaning (ca. 1640–47), meant to instruct a large readership, belongs to a five-part series of housekeeping tips. Roghman’s aesthetic also indicates the increasing impact painting, rather than drawing, had on engravings by the mid-17th-century, when they became so lifelike they appear eerily modern.