Today’s post comes from Morgan Williams, class of 2017 and Art Center Student Docent.
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s latest exhibition, Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540, opened Friday, September 19. The exhibition opened with a lecture by Freyda Spira, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s associate curator of drawings and prints and co-curator of the new exhibition. Ms. Spira’s lecture focused on the political, religious, and economic environments in Augsburg that allowed art to flourish in this time and place.
Ms. Spira began by explaining that Augsburg was founded as a Roman military fortress that became a provincial capital as part of the Roman Empire and, later, an imperial free city as part of the Holy Roman Empire. The city’s location along various trade routes fostered the development of a ruling class of wealthy merchant families. These families often commissioned works made from woodcuts because they offered the prestige of owning a work of art in a middle-class price range. In response to the demand for prints, artists started to create large scale images made of multiple prints placed side by side to form a composite image. Besides benefitting from a burgeoning market for prints among the city’s merchants, Augsburg artists also enjoyed the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who frequented the city. Maximilian supported the production not just of prints, but also of portrait medallions and elaborately decorated armor from artists in a region renowned for its metallurgy and metalworking. His commissions, whether in print or in metal, were typically for products that functioned directly or indirectly as political propaganda.
Ms. Spira discussed the ways that Augsburg embraced its Roman heritage in line with the Renaissance’s humanist, classicizing impulse. For example, Maximilian commissioned many imperial book projects, including a Kaiserbuch which was intended to be an illustrated documentation of every past Roman emperor. Artists in Augsburg also looked to the Romans for aesthetic inspiration. Daniel Hopfer, one of Augsburg’s most innovative printmakers, used the pinecone as his personal emblem, an object famous in Rome for symbolizing resurrection. This revival of interest in the Roman past, as well as Augsburg’s commercial ties with Italy, led Augsburg to become one of the first cities in Germany to adopt an Italianate Renaissance style in its art. However, Augsburg’s art retained its German roots, resulting in works with Germanic themes but with Italianate details in clothing, architecture, and ornament.
In addition to new ways of portraying subjects, artists in Augsburg looked for ways to innovate in the printing process itself. Artists such as Erhard Ratdolt began printing in color by creating multiple woodblocks, each for a different color, and combining them into one image. Hans Burgkmair, who apprenticed and collaborated with Ratdolt, took color printing a step further with the development of the chiaroscuro woodcut, in which “tone blocks” were used to create modeling and highlights. Additionally, etching emerged as a new form of printmaking developed by Daniel Hopfer, who invented the technique as a result of his work as an armor etcher. Hopfer developed a variety of strategies to enhance his etched prints. For example, he was known to use multiple sizes of etching needles, do multiple acid washes in order to achieve darker lines, and vary tones by using different acids in his work. No other artist in this period created etchings as complex as Hopfer’s, and the exhibition celebrates his achievement in the medium with many examples of his work.
Following Ms. Spira’s lecture, attendees left Taylor Hall and went to the Art Center to view the exhibition and to enjoy refreshments and the evocative sounds of the St. John’s Recorder Ensemble, who performed music of sixteenth-century Germany.
Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540 will be on display at the Art Center until December 14, 2014. It was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and is generously supported at Vassar by the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund.