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The Toledo Art Museum’s works on paper galleries currently seem to act as a who’s who in art history; it’s like catnip for art lovers. Visitors encounter Rembrandt, Dürer, Delacroix, Goya, Van Gogh, Manet, Cassatt, Whistler, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Rembrandt, then another Rembrandt, and turning a corner — Pow! — it’s Lichtenstein.
Sometimes it’s tempting to believe that major art museums are shy about exhibiting works on paper. Susceptible to fading, drawings, prints and photographs often seem sequestered away in a museum’s darkest and least trafficked corners, as if in quarantine. But for now, those who visit Looks Good on Paper at the TMA will find themselves in the most star-studded rooms of the entire museum. The exhibition offers a muscular spread of 100 prints, drawings, photographs, etchings, and rare books representing the “best of the best” from the TMA’s permanent collection, a real treat considering the museum has more than 10,000 works on paper from which to choose.
And it’s not just Western art. Though less prominent, this exhibition also features Japanese shin-hanga prints (of which, incidentally, the TMA has a massive collection—one that warranted an impressive show of its own last year) and Hokusai’s immediately recognizable, crowd-pleasing Wave from his famous series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.
Looks Good On Paper displays some of photography’s greatest hits, including works by Le Gray, Walker Evans, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. Ansell Adams’ celebrated and hauntingly beautiful Moonrise: Hernandez, New Mexico is especially striking; if the story is true, it was a spur-of-the-moment photograph taken by Adams in a single attempt. In his rush to capture a fleeting instant before the light changed, Adams didn’t even bother to unpack the light meter from his truck. So much about this image gets lost in translation when the poster-sized photograph is downsized to fit the pages of art history textbooks; this is a rare opportunity to experience it in person.
Tucked away near the end of the labyrinthine exhibition space, the rare books on view are some of the most rewarding works, emphatically making the point that a book really can be a work of art. William Morris’ celebrated Kelmscott Chaucer, apogee of Arts and Crafts book design, adorns the text of Geoffrey Chaucer with elaborate decorative boarders and 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, supplying new meaning to the description “lavishly illustrated.” Four years in the making, Morris and Jones completed it in 1896, the same year William Morris passed away. It was his final achievement and, as far as printing goes, his greatest.
German artist Anslem Kiefer’s massive Brünnhilde is, like his paintings, more sculptural than flat. Visceral, textured, and menacing, Kiefer’s Brünnhilde provides a stark contrast in juxtaposition to Matisse’s’ playful book Jazz, which, full of colorful and whimsical collages, serves its title well.
The most cohesive and deliberately designed space in the exhibition is the Print Study Room. Its centerpiece is a first edition King James Bible. Opened to the book of Job, a call and response ensues between these pages and the engravings of William Blake, which line the room’s perimeter. Blake, highly influenced by the book of Job, created a series of over two dozen soulful engravings inspired by the text.
Looks Good on Paper offers more breath than depth, admittedly seeming a bit random at times. But whenever possible, similar images or themes are grouped in twos or threes. Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximillian, for example, hangs beside Honore Daumier’s Rue Transnonain, an iconic depiction of defeat in the face of violence; and Lucas Cranach’s Tournament (depicting knights jousting) answers the spectacle of a bullfight scene by Goya. Much more nuanced, Rembrandt’s Crucifixion hangs beside an abstraction by Barnett Newman, recalling Newman’s famous Stations of the Cross.
At its heart, this exhibition provides an avenue for the TMA to flaunt its strong, all-star collection of works on paper. It’s just a shame the actual exhibition hall is not located in a more deserving and trafficked area, giving these works the breath, space and attention they deserve.
Observant viewers will find that the Shakespeare folio on display is turned to the opening staves of Henry the Fifth, in which the narrator, Chorus, famously asks the audience to pardon such grand and lofty persons and events being portrayed on such a humble and “unworthy” stage. One can’t help but wonder if perhaps this was a sly and witty tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that the hard-to-find and often neglected hallways behind the museum’s kitchen and cafeteria (their inviting smells a nearly palpable presence in the gallery space) are perhaps a similarly “unworthy scaffold” upon which to present such a grand and lofty pageant of who’s who in art history.
Too few people wander back into the TMA’s works on paper galleries. Which is wonderful for us, actually, because until January 11, 2014 we can take advantage of the chance to see Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Kiefer, all within a few paces and without the crowds. Had they any inkling of how rich this exhibition is, they would be there too.