Visual Arts Review | Thru Feb. 23 An angel sits dejected, head leaning into the palm of one hand, while the other holds a writing instrument. Beside her lies a sleepy dog and above her sits a downcast cherub; positioned about her are a block of stone and hammer, an hourglass, scales, a bell and other icons to weigh and measure the passage of time. These items represent the bane of the artist, the impetus to create and the melancholy that accompanies it - the shadow side of creativity.
"Melencolia I" by Albrecht D¸rer is part of the IMA exhibit "The Print in the North - The Age of Albrecht D¸rer and Lucas van Leyden"
The image described above, "Melencolia I" by Albrecht D¸rer, is poignant. Created in 1514 during the Renaissance, a period of flourishing artistic activity and invention, the piece is one of the finest examples of printmaking during its time. Displayed among 80 prints of the period by various artists, known and lesser known, the engraving is part of the traveling exhibition The Print in the North - The Age of Albrecht D¸rer and Lucas van Leyden, on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through Feb. 23. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution holding one of the finest print collections in the world, The Print in the North includes engravings, etchings and woodcuts by the most celebrated print artists of the Northern Renaissance. The works, dating between 1425 and 1550, represent a turning point for the printmaking medium. The decision of Albrecht D¸rer, thought of as the greatest artistic genius of the northern Renaissance, to direct his talent towards printmaking instead of painting, was pivotal to this transition. Among the 33 artists represented, the 10 prints by D¸rer are striking examples of the medium at its height in terms of technical mastery and the depiction of allegorical subject matter, prior to the subtleties that would soon follow. Later, artists such as Rembrandt employed the medium to move beyond the grandiosity of biblical and historical imagery, exploring the use of looser lines alongside realism that was a foreshadowing of more interpretative artistic expression. The exhibit explores a medium that is important from a historical as well as aesthetic perspective without relying on the grandiosity typical of blockbusters. It"s a welcome respite as the museum undergoes its ambitious reconstruction. Albrecht D¸rer does not roll off the tongue like Renoir or Rembrandt, but the museum attempts to market the exhibit with the same big-name spin. Its promotional materials emphasize The Met as the source for the prints, and who can fault the institution for this? The exhibit is a heady one, and its origins speak to its quality. If you go, be sure and meander to the back of the galleries where the curators have put together a primer on printmaking, including examples of printmaking tools and contemporary prints by local artists Peg Fierke and Jan Tenenbaum. An understanding of the differences between woodcut techniques, whereby an image is created in relief, versus the intaglio technique, in which the image is created by cutting or burning into metal, makes all the difference in terms of gaining a true appreciation for the painstaking detail and patience essential to these artforms. My only complaint is that the curators chose to display this part of the exhibition at its end, where it is least helpful. D¸rer"s "Melencolia I," then, is all the more profound when there is an understanding of the complexity of detail required, not to mention the aesthetic virtuosity of the image itself as well as its symbolic value. Ironically, this image of the powerless artist exemplifies the height of D¸rer"s own prodigious talent. Guest curator Nadine M. Orenstein writes that the Renaissance thought that melancholy was linked with creative genius and "made the self-conscious artist aware that this gift came with terrible risks." Both of these ideas hold true today. The Print in the North - The Age of Albrecht D¸rer and Lucas van Leyden, selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is on view through Feb. 23. For information, call the IMA at 923-1331 or visitwww.ima-art.org