- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

The National Gallery of Art’s “The Baroque Woodcut” exhibition shows how 17th-century artists made a giant leap from earlier, sparely linear woodcuts to emotionally exuberant, painterly ones.

It’s as if major baroque artists such as Titian, Albrecht Durer, Peter Paul Rubens and Guido Reni threw their talents into a giant pot of stew and cooked up the exhibit.

The broth’s ingredients — painters collaborating with skilled woodblock artists — began with High Renaissance artists Titian and Durer and then mixed in the chiaroscuro artistry of later painter Domenico Beccafumi and others.

The mixture then got a powerful dose of potent “herbs” when Rubens chose master woodcutter Christoffel Jegher as his collaborator, and then the brew received a slightly gentler dose of lights and darks with the partnership of Reni and Bartolomeo Coriolano.

This may be one of the first shows devoted to the importance of the woodblock cutter and focused on this kind of artistry.

Exhibit curator Peter Parshall describes this later woodcut process as incredibly complicated. He says an artisan such as Jegher first cut a design in relief on the wood’s surface. The cutting then created a network of raised lines that were first inked, then printed with a press.

Jegher, like others, would have used knives, chisels and gouges to cut the relief lines.

Gradually, more and more woodblocks were made for the more complicated designs — but not one is displayed in the exhibit. This is the show’s greatest defect, as their display would have made the process come alive for visitors.

In the second gallery, Rubens and Jegher began their partnership with religious images such as the sympathetic “Coronation of the Virgin” and “Infant Christ and Saint John With the Lamb.” They then turned to classic stories with “Drunken Silenus” and the dynamic “Hercules Triumphant Over Discord.”

The heavily inked “Hercules Triumphant Over Discord,” originally part of the commission Rubens made for the ceiling of London’s Whitehall Palace Banqueting Hall, startles with its seen-from-below steepness.

One of the exhibit’s most impressive woodcuts, the early-12th-century “Procession of the Doge in the Piazza San Marco,” is a rare instance of designer and printer as one. Jost Amman portrayed his imaginary (Venice’s) “Marriage With the Sea” with a scene of the Doge, his boat and joyful celebrants — impressive for both its size and its linear tangles.

Of course, there’s much more here, especially from Reni’s 15-year collaboration with Coriolano, one of the few 17th-century artisans who worked with chiaroscuro.

An exhibit of 80 woodcuts can be confusing, with so many techniques shown. It’s certainly impressive, but it needs the actual woodcuts in process to make the show come alive.

WHAT: “The Baroque Woodcut”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Through March 30.

TICKETS: Free.

ONLINE: www.nga.gov/exhibitions /woodcutinfo.shtm

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