Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 26, 2016
Michael A. Brown and Niria E. Leyva-Guttíerrez Divine Desire: Printmaking, Mythology, and the Birth of the Baroque Exh. cat. San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 2015. 45 pp.; 32 color ills. Paper $19.95 (9780937108520)
Exhibition schedule: San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, March 28–June 30, 2015
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Hendrick Goltzius. The Great Hercules (1589). Engraving. Norman Leitman Collection, L3900.1.

Divine Desire: Printmaking, Mythology, and the Birth of the Baroque at the San Diego Museum of Art was an exhibition of over seventy late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Netherlandish engraved prints, mostly by Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617), his pupil and stepson Jacob Matham (1571–1631), and student Jan Pietersz Saenredam (1565–1607). The subject matter of the prints is predominantly mythological and secular, apart from a series on the virtues and vices. In selecting this subject matter, curator Michael A. Brown complemented material presented in another local exhibition, that of Goltzius’s sacred prints held in 2013–14 at the Crocker Art Museum and University of San Diego’s Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Print Galleries (click here for review). The main source for the Divine Desire exhibition was a 2004 gift of over two hundred prints from Norman Leitman and Todd Butler. This rich resource, which has not had significant exposure, was supplemented by loans from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum, the University of San Diego, and Leitman’s collection.

Goltzius, who settled in Haarlem in 1577, was one of the most famous and enterprising printmakers of his day, excelling in both reproductive and original prints that were rapidly acquired by collectors throughout Europe. They appreciated Goltzius’s superb burin technique employing rhythmic, swelling lines and astounding textural effects, all of which was abundantly displayed in this exhibition. While paintings with rich use of pigments and brushwork are described as painterly, engravings coming from the workshop and colleagues of Goltzius are truly “printerly,” to coin a phrase. His business sense matched his artistic talent; for instance, his publishing house competed successfully with those of his more established rivals in Antwerp.

Goltzius was championed by the Netherlandish biographer Karel van Mander whose Het Shilderboek (1604) devotes considerable space to the artist. He favorably compares Goltzius’s skill in drawing to that of Italian masters such as Michelangelo. The printmaker was well-practiced in the subject matter and styles of the rich Northern European visual tradition, and began producing prints with Greco-Roman mythological subject matter well before he went to Rome in 1590. While there he drew ancient statuary and experienced the works of more contemporary artists, thus enriching his awareness of Italianate artistic trends.

The exhibition was divided into five sections, “The Pantheon,” “The Loves of the Gods,” “The Trials of Hercules,” “Italian Sojourns: Artists and Travel,” “Allegory: The Seven Virtues and Seven Vices,” and “Rubens and the Birth of Baroque.” Didactic placards introduced the theme of each section and provided sociohistorical background. Labeling was minimal, limited to discussing the myths and figures presented, with some historical context, befitting an exhibition suited to a general audience.

The initial room of the exhibition, “The Pantheon,” was hemicyclical, reminiscent of the eponymous Roman temple. Here were hung Goltzius’s standing images of the gods in niches after Polidoro da Caravaggio. At the center was one of the most important pieces in the exhibtion, the three-plate reproductive engraving of the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche (1587), a recent gift to the museum. Engraved by Goltzius from drawings by Bartholomeus Spranger, this monumental print took a number of years to complete since Spranger was an artist at Rudolf II’s court in Prague, and Goltzius was in Haarlem. The two sent images back and forth to each other, a testament to the international nature of artistic collaboration at this time. Few North American institutions hold all three parts of this print, which must have delighted its original viewers with its complex structure and panoply of divinities. Today’s viewers might be confused by the positioning of the main subjects in the background of the print, but as with many of the images in the exhibition, this was directed at the connoisseur for slow, thoughtful consumption. The strong meditative tradition of Northern Netherlandish devotional art espoused careful looking and deep thinking, which must also have been applicable to the viewing practices of secular prints such as these. The San Diego Museum of Art recognized this aspect of the exhibition by providing magnifying glasses for leisurely examination of the prints.

The second section continued the theme of the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche by displaying images of the romantic entanglements of the Greco-Roman gods. Particularly beautiful is Andromeda (ca. 1609) by Saenredam (after a design by Goltzius). This work was also enlarged in a wall plaque, accentuating the artist’s masterful use of the burin. Rhythmic and patterned hatching, occasionally with dots in the center of the trapezoidal cross-hatching marks, create wonderful contrasts between light and shade and are texturally rich. This was characteristic of all the prints in the exhibition, which did much to promote an appreciation of the art of engraving as practiced in the Netherlands in the early modern period.

The section concerning the trials of Hercules underscored two competing beliefs from the period: Hercules was a figure of heroic virtue to be emulated, but also tragic and flawed. The former view is exemplified by Goltzius’s well-known mannerist image of The Great Hercules of 1589, an oversized engraving in which the exaggeratedly muscled and fancily mustachioed figure is flanked by depictions of his battles with Antaeus and the Cretan bull. This engraving might present the hero as a symbol for the nascent Dutch republic and for the suppression of Spanish tyranny, accounting for his portrait-like face and pillowy musculature. One of Hercules’s flaws (lust) is seen in Matham’s Hercules and Dejanira (ca. 1597). This engraving depicts a highly erotic embrace between the hero and his hard-won bride: in the background is an image of Dejanira being carried off by the centaur Nessus. A viewer first encounters the erotica, and then at leisure can think about the narrative of Hercules’s lust for other women and the sad tale of adultery that ultimately lead to his death. As with many works of art in this period, this print is multivalent, serving both scopophilic and instructive ends. The museum’s didactic materials correctly point out that Counter Reformation viewers were accustomed to reading moralizing messages in Greco-Roman subjects.

Included in this section is a rare artist’s proof, Goltzius’s wonderful chiaroscuro woodcut Hercules and Cacus (1588). As a virtuoso who prided himself on being able to imitate the works of famous predecessors such as Albrecht Dürer, Goltzius likewise proves himself the master of the dramatic woodcut style pioneered by Hans Burckmaier and Hans Baldung Grien early in the sixteenth century and by Frans Floris later.

The thematic room “Italian Sojourns: Artists and Travel” displayed two works from Goltzius’s 1590 trip to Italy: his thoughtful, personalized renditions of the Apollo Belvedere and of Commodus as Hercules. These could be compared to the very different earlier Italianate style visible in Enea Vico’s Mars and Venus (ca. 1523) and Giorgio Ghisi’s Judgment of Paris (1555). The Germanic tradition was represented by two works by Dürer, who also visited Italy: his masterful engraving Combat of Virtue and Pleasure in the Presence of Hercules (1499) and the tiny, precious woodcut Satyr Family (1505).

The penultimate section of the exhibition, “Allegory: The Seven Virtues and Seven Vices,” switched to didactic subjects from Christianity, introducing the viewer to iconography that was all too familiar to a Counter Reformation audience. Saenredam’s series of the individual cardinal virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) in landscapes included an especially fine impression of Charity.

The final room loosely introduced the Baroque proper. Two loans from the University of San Diego represented this tradition: Agostino Carracci’s Mercury and the Three Graces (1588) and Christoffel Jegher’s March of Silenus, after Peter Paul Rubens (1652). Even though Goltzius and his colleagues were contemporaries of these artists, their well-circulated prints were nevertheless highly influential. A good example is Jan Muller’s print Prudence at Her Mirror (1598), presented as the source for Ruben’s Venus at Her Mirror (ca. 1615). Two final prints round out the exhibition; these are Icarus (1588) and Tantalus (1588), from a famous series of four Disgracers. They were the result of a collaboration between Goltzius and Cornelisz van Haarlem, and the impressively foreshortened forms tumbling from panoramic skies make one recognize the close links between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artistic traditions, as well as the important contributions to both made by the Netherlandish engravers highlighted in this exhibition.

There is a brief catalogue in which a selection of reproductions is introduced with a useful contextual essay by Brown and Niria E. Leyva-Guttíerrez. The exhibition had much to offer both scholarly and general viewers, and was nicely summed up in the catalogue: “Executed with seemingly effortless technical genius, the prints offered an unmatched visual feast of pure delight—both earthly and divine” (14).

Allyson Burgess Williams
Lecturer, School of Art and Design, San Diego State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.