The idea that a work of art could be an object derived from the imagination instead of depicting something that imitated the natural world is one of the key tenets of modern art. This is not to say, however, that pictures based on an artists inner vision were only made during the modern era. Ancient and Medieval artists, for example, frequently envisioned in the form of paintings and sculpture the gods, fables, and myths of their respective worlds. Millenniums later, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) enthused about the origin and pleasure of such fanciful images when he spoke about that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.
The prints in this exhibition, on view in the Museum of Arts Otto A. Meyer Galleries from July 21 through October 28, were made by a diverse group of European and American artists active from the Early Renaissance through the first half of the 20th century. Collectively, the works they created over the course of five centuries demonstrate the range of imaginative possibilities that could be achieved when artists strove to record their inner visions on paper for posterity.
The exhibition begins with artworks by several Northern Renaissance artists who visualized passages in the Bible or the folklore of their age. Several centuries later, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) made a trenchant critique of his ages Enlightenment ideals by suggesting in the aquatint, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797-99), that the imagination was a fertile, poetic alternative to humankinds rational thought processes. The English Romantic artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) discovered an outlet for his imagination in the Hebrew Bibles Book of Job, a figure with whom he identified personally. Blakes countryman, John Martin (1789-1854), was attracted to the pictorial possibilities of the Bibles Genesis narrative. His apocalyptic visions influenced the allegorical paintings of the American landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801-48), who was also drawn to the pictorial potential of the myth of the Golden Age. In France at this time the reclusive printmaker Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-85) produced fantastic images inspired by Northern European artists of the 16th century. His pupil, the Symbolist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) did not illustrate Gustave Flauberts famous prose poem, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), with images that slavishly illustrated the text but, instead, produced a suite of visual poems that merely were evoked by the French authors narrative. For Redons contemporary, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), the evils of Western industrialized society impelled him to create images based on the superstitions and myths of the native people he lived among in the South Pacific. Dreamlike visions also inspired the visual language of the Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), as well and the German Modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940). His fellow countryman Max Beckmann (1884-1950), struggling to grasp the horrific tragedy of World War I, created an apocalyptic image that bore no resemblance to traditional representations of the biblical end of time. The even more radical early 20th-century Russian/German painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), is the only artist in the exhibition that used abstract forms to depict his private, utopian vision. By contrast, two of the 20th centurys Surrealists used naturalistic imagery to create otherworldly pictures: Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) combined recognizable subject matter in strange, unlikely, and sometimes threatening combinations, while his younger peer, Salvador Dal (1904-1989), objectified his dreams and subconscious apparitions with naturalistic forms combined in unnatural ways. During World War II the German refugee Gustav Wolf (1887-1947) presented the towering skyscrapers of New York City as threatening manifestations of the anxiety he felt as a stranger in a foreign land. Just several years later, Joan Mir (1893-1983) produced lithographs peopled with strange, biomorphic creatures derived from his childlike imagination. His contemporary Marc Chagall (1887-1985) found an apt outlet for his visionary sensibilities and masterful color sense in the suite of fanciful lithographic images he made that were inspired by the collection of famous Middle Eastern folk tales, A Thousand and One Nights.
Paper Visions is on view through October 28