On Exhibit: Printmaking is front and center at the Clark

Left: “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge,” lithograph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Right: “Zõjõji Temple, Shiba,” color woodblock print by Kawase Hasui. (Images courtesy Clark Art Museum)
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Left: “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge,” lithograph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Right: “Zõjõji Temple, Shiba,” color woodblock print by Kawase Hasui. (Images courtesy Clark Art Museum)

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On desolate winter days, a trip to the Clark Art Institute could be a good bet for beating cabin fever.

This month especially is a good time to make the sometimes bleak and sometimes beautiful drive out to Williamstown, as admission to the museum is free and printmaking is front and center.

Brightly colored and bawdy advertisements by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec adorn the walls of one exhibit, which also features posters from Jules Chéret and prints by Mary Cassatt, among other artists.

The works are part of the exhibit “Hue & Cry,” which explores the rise, fall and subsequent rise of color in French printmaking between the 18th and late 19th centuries.

The exhibit starts with an exploration of color in printmaking during the 1760s when aquatint was introduced and French artists began using color intaglio printmaking (where several plates were inked in different hues). It allowed for more detailed works, like the depiction of a wild celery root created in the workshop of Jacques-Fabien Gautier-Dagoty in 1767.

However, it was a time-consuming and costly process that was only possible for the wealthy and thus fell out of fashion with the French Revolution. It remained so for the next century and it wasn’t until the Europeans were introduced to Japanese woodblock techniques and ukiyo-e style prints that color began to make its way back into French printmaking.

Cassatt, an American artist who studied and worked in France, was particularly inspired by the Japanese prints and created a set of ten color aquatints after seeing a major exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In the exhibit, viewers see “Mother’s Kiss,” a sweet, intimate piece with a mother embracing a child, her dark coifed hair turned toward the viewer. The colors are toned down, though the mother’s dress features red and a muddy green/brown floral pattern.

Further along, are the more familiar posters and advertisements from the Belle Époque of the 1890s, including Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Balcony with a Gilded Grotesque Mask,” depicting a woman with opera glasses pointing toward an unseen stage, her bright red lips pursed, perhaps in disappointment or praise. The red of her lips and hair stand out from the faded red of the theater balcony in the background.

The piece, a color lithograph, is displayed near “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge,” one of the artist’s more scandalous works. A grey-hued man, representing the artist William Tom Warrener, leans toward two brightly-hued women, one with vibrant red hair and another with a black lock escaping from a hat. The intimacy between the figures is loaded with innuendo.
Flashier advertisements from Chéret are also on view, including a few that make ice skating seem glamorous.

Other highlights in the exhibit include a series of works by Henri Rivière, especially a sweeping 1898 work depicting boats coming into a harbor at sunset. The sky is framed by hues of greens and blues, separated from the sea by mountainous clouds of mauve.

‘Competing Currents’

The exhibit ends on a rather timid note, though that shouldn’t stop one from wandering through the Clark’s permanent collection and into the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery to find an appealing array of 1900s Japanese prints. The exhibit, titled “Competing Currents,” presents works from the ukiyo-e genre, as well as shin-hanga (new prints) and sōsaku-hanga (creative prints). It’s not nearly as expansive as “Hue & Cry,” however, the pieces on view are crowd-pleasers. Even on a Tuesday afternoon, the gallery had a fair number of visitors taking their time to wander and pause in front of pieces that caught their attention.

And there are plenty of prints that engender a pause, including moody works like “Kagurazaka Street after Night Rain,” a color
woodblock print by Yoshida Hiroshi with the light from glowing lanterns and shop windows reflected in the watery streets that draw one into the rest of the composition.

In another eye-catching piece, this one by Kawase Hasui, a vivid red temple stands in stark contrast with the pure white snow falling and covering the roof and trees. A figure walks down the temple stairs, mostly hidden by an azure umbrella.

Elsewhere, the prints focus on popular tourist attractions, like the Kintai Bridge. In a shin-hanga-style piece by Hasui, the serpentine bridge is shown from below, with mountains in the background and a few figures on the bank of the waterway and on the bridge. The scene is peaceful, with saturated blues and greens of the natural landscape juxtaposed with the brown and grey-white stone of the bridge.

“Competing Currents” is a visual relief and delight that leaves one wanting a deeper exploration into Japanese printmaking. It’s on view until January 30. Admission to the Clark is free through the entire month.

Beyond the print exhibits, there’s plenty to see in the permanent collection, including pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Sarah Bernhardt and others. Advanced reservations are suggested and can be made online and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 is required for entry into the museum. For more information visit clarkart.edu.

Categories: Art, Life and Arts

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