- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Print- and papermaking — principally used for producing multiple religious images — arrived in Europe in the early 15th century and set off one of the great information explosions of all time — an explosion that preceded Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type by 30 years. Until recently, scholars had neglected the phenomenon, but renewed interest has prompted the National Gallery of Art’s exquisite and informative “Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public.”

The long-overdue exhibit, the first major international show focusing on these earliest prints on paper in the West, was co-organized by the gallery with the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. In choosing 146 of the best examples from their collections, museum curators Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch have emphasized the linear, singing quality of the prints.

Visitors may question the importance of prints as an art medium and teaching tool. This results in part from the confusing jargon that has grown up around the term, making it difficult to distinguish between mechanically made prints — those run off on high-speed presses that can print thousands of images — and original woodcut prints like these. The exhibit performs a valuable service in dispelling the confusion and showing original prints’ considerable power.

Today’s viewers also might find it difficult to grasp the importance of replicated images in the 15th century. Before replicated works, only wealthy, upper-class individuals owned one-of-a-kind images such as the exhibit’s oil-on-panel, circa 1455 “Portrait of a Female Donor and Portrait of a Male Donor” by Petrus Christus. After the 1430s, however, less wealthy members of society such as craftsmen could own mass-produced religious images and texts.

This ambitious exhibit aims to show how early prints were made and used. “Room I: Techniques of Replication” exhibits works made from a variety of duplicating techniques, such as casting, stamping, impressing and molding. “Room II: Traces of an Early Style” shows the exhibit’s earliest woodcuts, such as the large “Christ Before Herod” (1420-1430). Its almost primitive expressiveness alone is worth a trip to the gallery.

The curators organized “Room III: New Markets” to show the variety of secular works made at the time. Two are amusing — the “Christ Child With a New Year’s Wish,” one of the first greeting cards, and “Apes Performing on Horseback,” in which the animals perform tricks atop the backs of two elaborately outfitted horses. The late-14th-century “Legend of Oedipus” is an enormous, brilliantly colored cloth that may be the first textile block-printed in Europe.

Entering “Room IV: The Uses of Early Woodcuts” is a shock. Mostly preserved in monasteries, these religious prints depict the bloody crucifixion of Christ and suffering of his followers. The “Lamentation Over the Body of Christ” is one of the most unusual because it was created as a private folded altarpiece that was slipped into an embroidered pouch. The whole was then placed in a leather box and carefully preserved by the nun Apollonia of the Convent of Saint Clara.

The last gallery, “Room V: The Saints,” features images depicting the saints who Christians believed would intercede for them with God.

However, it’s in the first gallery, with two versions of “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” (1470-1475) — the carved woodblock and a print made from it — where the curators make their mark. According to Mr. Parshall, these are the only early-15th-century print and block to be reunited.

The deep incising of the wood is expressive in a way the print cannot be. Fear and pain leap from the saint in the three-dimensional, tortured squeezing of his arrow-pierced arms and legs, skeletal chest and contorted face. He appears to recoil from the archers on either side of him. Rarely has there been a more expressive image of pain than in this woodblock.

Viewers meditating on the woodblock may feel the woodcarver cuts into their souls as well as the saint’s. The carved block is more effective in its physicality than the lightly colored print. It’s regrettable the curators included just a few carved woodblocks in the exhibit. With the addition of a few more, an already fine exhibit could have been even better.

WHAT: “Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 27

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/737-4216#

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