The Plot Thickens: Storytelling in European Print Series
February 22–May 24, 2020
Long before comics and graphic novels, artists used pictures to tell stories. This exhibition presents six series of etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts that do just that. The tales told include the Shakespearean tragedies Hamlet and King Lear, the biblical Parable of the Prodigal Son, and a purely pictorial dream sequence featuring a glove. Two more series illustrate sets of abstract principles—the Christian notion of the seven deadly sins and a German legal code from the 1400s.
The six series are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stylistically they range from the emotion- and action-packed Romanticism of Eugène Delacroix to the highly detailed Realism of James Tissot to the gestural near-abstraction of Oskar Kokoschka.
Over the history of printmaking, artists developed a variety of techniques, each of which has its own visible characteristics and expressive qualities. For example, lithography is closest to freehand drawing; etching lends itself to delicate, detailed work; and woodcuts often look rough and crude. Even a glance at the six series exhibited here reveals these distinct differences.
All works in the exhibition are drawn from the High Museum’s holdings of European works on paper.
Scroll down and click on the images to learn more about each work.
Thirteen subjects, drawn 1834–1843
Lithographs on wove paper, printed 1843–1864
Purchase in honor of Mrs. Robert Wells, President of the Members Guild (1972–1973), 73.37–73.49
Eugène Delacroix became interested in Shakespeare’s Hamlet after seeing a performance of the play in Paris in 1827. Between 1834 and 1843, he produced a series of sixteen lithographic drawings that illustrate the story, thirteen of which he published as a portfolio in 1843. Delacroix dated most of the scenes as he composed them and paired several with excerpts from the play’s text. A second edition of all sixteen illustrations was published only after the artist’s death, in 1864. The set shown here was printed between 1843 and 1864.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark tells the tale of a Danish prince who plots revenge against his uncle, who has murdered Hamlet’s father to seize his throne and to marry Hamlet’s mother. Along the way, the prince’s single-minded obsession brings about the death of friends and foes alike.
The character of Hamlet—dark and beset by psychological doubts—was a favorite hero of Romantics like Delacroix. The artist chose the medium of lithography, which allows the freedom and spontaneity of drawing, to pictorialize the play’s oppressive mood and stormy action in dynamic compositions full of physical movement and emotional agitation. He focused on scenes that most dramatically reveal the psychological conflicts and the complicated relationships between the main characters.
A Glove (Ein Handschuh), 1880–1881
Portfolio of seven etchings and three aquatint etchings on wove paper, fifth edition, 1924
Purchase with funds from the Lawrence and Alfred Fox Foundation for the Ralph K. Uhry Collection, 1977.7 A–J
Max Klinger’s pictorial telling of the adventures of a glove does not follow a continuous plot line. Rather, individual events are strung together loosely like episodes in a dream, without clear causal or temporal transitions between them.
Inspired by a personal experience of picking up a lady’s dropped glove, Klinger in 1878 produced a series of ten drawings depicting fantasies of what might happen to such a glove and its finder. Two years later, he translated the drawings into a portfolio of etchings and published it in 1881. The portfolio went through several subsequent editions. The prints shown here are from the fifth edition, published in 1924 by the artist’s widow and heir.
Klinger’s fantasies on the fate of the glove range from the amusing to the erotic and the nightmarish. The dreamlike and subjective quality of his imagery reflects the ideas of the symbolist movement in literature and art, which favored pure subjectivity over rationality and references to the inner world of emotions over naturalistic depictions of the physical world.
Just as there is no narrative continuity between the depicted events, so there is no stylistic consistency among the prints. Klinger used the versatile media of line etching and aquatint to create different moods, alternating eerie, shadow-filled scenes with brilliantly bright ones.
James Jacques Joseph Tissot
The Prodigal Son, 1881
Portfolio of five drypoints and aquatints on paper
Purchase for the Ralph K. Uhry Collection, 74.36 A–E
Over the course of his career, James Tissot depicted the Parable of the Prodigal Son several times: in oil paintings, watercolors, and this series of etchings. The story, from the Christian Bible, is that of a young man who leaves his prosperous family to roam foreign lands and, in the pursuit of excitement and pleasure, squanders his fortune. Eventually destitute and reduced to begging, he returns home, where he is warmly received.
In his series of prints, Tissot transposed the biblical story into modern times and places. In fact, he may have thought of it in terms of his own life: Tissot had left his native French city of Nantes and for many years lived the bohemian highlife in London before eventually returning home and to his strong Catholic faith.
The etching techniques of aquatint and drypoint used to produce these prints are perfectly suited to Tissot’s realistic style. Of all printmaking techniques, their combined effect is closest to that of painting, yielding a great richness of tones and lines that imitate different textures and lighting effects. Tissot deployed them with great skill to evoke the story’s varied settings, from the furnishings of a prosperous English middle-class home to the exotic decor of a Japanese tea house.
The Deadly Sins, 1888
Portfolio of eight etchings
Purchase with funds from the Lawrence and Alfred Fox Foundation for the Ralph K. Uhry Collection, 72.8 A–E
In 1904, James Ensor published an album of prints titled The Deadly Sins (Les Péchés capitaux). By way of updating the traditional principles of Christian morality, in Ensor’s version the vices are perpetrated by contemporary figures acting in contemporary contexts, although small skeletons or devils mock their obscene behavior. In addition to depictions of each of the seven vices—gluttony, sloth, pride, anger, avarice, envy, and lust—the album contains a frontispiece, in which a winged skeleton hovers menacingly above seven hideous figures, allegories of the sins ridiculed in the subsequent scenes.
The series of prints was not created all at once. Lust was the first etching to be created, in 1888, Sloth in 1902, and the remaining in 1904. In The Deadly Sins, Ensor elaborated on the grotesque and at times funny iconography that he had developed since 1886–1889. A far cry from his earlier realistic portraits and still lifes, monsters, devils, skeletons, mops, and carnival characters close in on the sinners.
Ensor used etching to reproduce his characteristic drawing style. Lines are wavy and nervous, as if made by a trembling hand. This intense, inelegant manner contributes to the grotesque appearance of his characters. They are as deformed outside as they are corrupted inside.
King Lear, 1963
Sixteen lithographs on paper
Gift of Dr. Sherman N. Leis through the Ackerman Foundation, 1979.61 A–P
William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear tells the tale of a king who bequeaths his power and land to two of his three daughters, Goneril and Regan, after they extravagantly and obsequiously declare their love for him. He disinherits his third daughter, Cordelia, because she does not flatter him in the same way. When Lear realizes that the two preferred daughters do not really love and respect him, he becomes furious to the point of madness. Lear eventually is reconciled to Cordelia, but tragic fate prevails, and both die.
In 1963, Oskar Kokoschka, one of the leading exponents of Expressionism, drew a series of sixteen lithographs to illustrate a new, limited edition of the play. The full-page images were interspersed with the text, appearing approximately every sixteen to twenty pages. The set shown here is number 273 of the limited edition of 275.
Lithography can closely imitate pencil or crayon drawings and is the perfect vehicle for Kokoschka’s vehement gestural style. Given his Expressionist beginning and the artistic freedom that often comes with enduring professional success, it is not surprising that some of Kokoschka’s King Lear illustrations verge on the abstract, conveying drama and action through gesture and rapid facture rather than through detailed descriptions of characters and settings.
Hans Friedrich Grohs
Die Siebenhardenbeliebung, 1921–1922
Five woodcut prints
Gift of Nelson Brackin, 2005.332.1–5
The Siebenhardenbeliebung is the name of the oldest written document classifying North Frisian law. It was drafted in 1426 by representatives of the seven principal administrative districts of North Frisia, a coastal region on the North Sea—today mostly in Germany and partly in Denmark—that the kings of Denmark and the dukes of Schleswig were claiming and fighting over. Its twenty-three articles cover criminal, property, and inheritance rights.
As a native of northern Germany, the artist Hans Grohs nurtured a life-long interest and nationalistic pride in the history of this region and repeatedly treated it in series of prints, similar to the one exhibited here.
Grohs was a practitioner of German Expressionism, an early twentieth-century art movement that emphasized the artist’s inner feelings and ideas over replicating reality. In the graphic arts, the woodcut was the Expressionists’ favored medium. For one, they associated it with a particularly German tradition that harked back to the great Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer; but they also found it eminently suitable for their powerfully direct, expressive imagery, with which they defied the (overly) refined conventions of academic art. In Grohs’s Siebenhardenbeliebung, the angular roughness of the woodcut accords especially well with the more violent—to the modern sensibility, primitive—aspects of early law.