There are some times when a celebrated turn of phrase from literature perfectly sums up an experience, and for a current exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art, the magic words come from Christopher Marlowe, writing in 1589: Infinite riches in a little room.
The West Palm Beach museum has been promised prints by three supreme masters of the genre — Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Pablo Picasso — and 26 of them are on display through Sept. 11 in a tiny, low-light gallery just inside the entrance to the museum. In this dark and holy space are some of the best-known images in Western art, and it is no small thing for the Norton to be promised possession of them to add to its collection.
Dürer, Rembrandt and Picasso: Three Masters of the Print is a Norton-curated show that rewards close attention, in part because most of the works are quite small, but they also offer sterling examples of the power of tiny lines to suggest immense distances. Dürer in particular seems to revel in this technique; far off to the right of Adam and Eve (1504), a mountain goat stands atop a craggy rock, and in The Sea Monster (1495), a man rushes to the beach to stop the one-horned merman from carrying off his female prize, all in front of an elaborate fortress, while far in the distance, a ship sits on the water, its sails filled by a strong wind.
In Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643), the tumultuous sky above the trees in the countryside outside Amsterdam is suggested by whirling strokes, smudges of ink to call up clouds, and slashing diagonal lines to the left that are about to bring rain onto the arboreal trinity as well as the fisherman in the foreground and an artist on a hill behind the trees, sketching outside in a Baroque-era version of en plein air.
Most of Rembrandt’s works are drawn from biblical, historical or mythological subjects, and while five of the six Picasso works here include facial studies of lovers Dora Maar and Francoise Gilot and his daughter Paloma, the lone one that draws on myth, Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Girl (1936), is paired with the Rembrandt print that inspired it, Jupiter and Antiope (1659). Picasso’s celebrated Vollard Suite print, which combines aquatint, sugar lift etching, engraving and scraping, is a beautiful image that despite the artist’s well-known misogyny and cruelty, was made by a man who loved women, and all of their physicality.
The faun in the print looks somewhat stiff and crude as he reaches out to the slumbering woman in this erotic aubade, the light and shadow masterfully indicated with light and heavy ink, but the nude woman is barely outlined, a body of line and implication, only the hair of her genitalia glimpsed between her closed legs. The background myth, a typically brutal one of godly rape (with profound consequences), is not necessarily evident. What we see in the woman is a lightly drawn figure of desire rather than a target of conquest.
Rembrandt’s Jupiter and Antiope is more explicitly predatory, with the satyr (likely the face of Rembrandt himself) looking with a pronounced smile on the sleeping woman in the moment before he awakes her. The commentary with this image refers to the Jupiter-satyr as an old lech, leering over Antiope, but to me he appears to be looking at her tenderly, though what he has in mind is anything but.
This exhibit also is something of a greatest-hits collection of iconic images, with Dürer’s Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526), St. Jerome in His Study (1514) and Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) among the German artist’s prints on view. These works were enormously popular in their own day, offering citizens of the rising market society of the early 16th century a chance to have some affordable art, and they have been reproduced countless times (I have had a cheap copy of the Erasmus image on one or another of my walls since college).
The joy of seeing them up close is in seeing a master draftsman at work, someone who knew how to draw the human figure believably and give it depth, while at the same time being able to create a wide variety of shade and effect by changing the variety and layout of his strokes, and by building persuasive detail by varying the knots in the wooden beams above St. Jerome’s head. But focusing on those points of sophistication doesn’t take away from the immense power of the central figures: The figure of Death on a horse, trying to talk to a knight; the extravagant weirdness of the woodcut The Martyrdom of St. Catherine (1498), with its explosion in the sky as the breaking-wheel is destroyed, leaving the executioner, hand on sword, ready to go to Plan B and strike off the head of the saint; the devil putting a bellows to the head of the sleeping scholar in the Dream of the Doctor (1498), conjuring up a vision of a nude Venus and the temptation she provides.
A more immediately striking image comes by way of Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross by Torchlight (1654), in which the great humanity the Dutch artist brought to all his work is in evidence in the hand of someone standing by the cross as Jesus is taken down, looking to help, and the right foot of Jesus still nailed to the wood as the body falls horizontally into the arms of its caretakers. The whole scene has an earthy, authentic feeling to it that is miles away from the static devotional art of Rembrandt’s time, not to mention the succeeding centuries. And being able to see the print at its actual size, to examine how he managed these effects, only makes the scene more compelling. It has the sense of being assembled by a reporter on the scene, quickly getting down the image for posterity.
While woodcuts, engravings and etchings were the printmaking mediums for Dürer and Rembrandt, aquatints, lithographs and linocuts join the mix for Picasso. His Paloma and Her Doll on a Black Background (1952), a large lithograph, shows the artist’s young daughter with a cherubic face on which are incised shapes and lines, while the face of her doll, is bereft of them, and smeared with black ink. The effect today, after years of Hollywood horror movies featuring psychotic clowns and murderous dolls, is somewhat menacing, but without those pop-culture references it is a picture that is full of life and youthful energy.
All of these prints have been written about extensively, some of them for centuries. They are known quantities, and there are many other impressions of these prints on view at museums around the world. But what matters here is that they will soon join the Norton’s collection, which lifts the profile of the museum and potentially gives it more weight as a research institution.
Community pride, as well as an extended feast of Old Master pictures, are good reasons to see the show. Maybe the best reason is that some of the pieces are more than 500 years old and have lost none of their ability to astonish a viewer.
If you go
Dürer, Rembrandt and Picasso: Three Masters of the Print runs through Sept. 11 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Friday, 10 am to 10 pm, Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. Closed Wednesdays. Admission: $18 adults, $15 seniors, students, $5, children 12 and under, free. Call 561-832-5196 or visit www.norton.org.