Saturday, September 26, 2009

Romeyn de Hooghe

Shows of European printmaking are characteristically strong at Cornell's Johnson Museum. Recent years have featured superb exhibitions on such print-masters as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Honoré Daumier.

A compatriot and later-day contemporary of Rembrandt's is the subject of a compact but dense show currently at the museum. "Romeyn de Hooghe: Virtuoso Etcher" features an eclectic array of black and white intaglio prints by this little-known Dutch Baroque artist.

De Hooghe (1645-1708) isn't on the exalted artistic level of the above artists. His line-work is never less than immensely skillful and meticulous; still, the impression is often predominantly one of workaday laboriousness. His oft-repeated trick of juxtaposing dark, shadowy foregrounds against light middle-to-backgrounds is dramatic but sometimes over-mannered.

Like that of many printmakers, De Hooghe's oeuvre spans popular culture as well as more rarefied aesthetic territory. He made both stand-alone prints and illustrations for books (some of which he wrote himself) spanning everything from maps and mnemonic charts to political and military reportage.

De Hooghe's lifetime was marked by a series of wars, most prominently struggles between the Dutch and a coalition of foreign powers — particularly the English and the French — that took place between 1672 and 1678. Commemorations of some of these are concentrated in the show's first gallery. He was a Dutch patriot; consequently, an often vicious anti-French and anti-Catholic politics is marked.

Six framed plates taken from the artist's own text The Theatre of Changes in the Netherlands (1674) — a bound copy of the book is on display, too — show a visually intricate and heavily idealized narrative. Six progressive stages show a Dutch utopia threatened by barbarian Frenchmen only to be eventually recovered. Characteristically, they combine real current events with mythological and allegorical figures.

A rudimentarily hand-colored sea chart (attributed to the artist) incorporates a scene of the Dutch naval hero De Ruyter as Neptune being lead on a seaborne chariot by horses and merfolk.

Other prints emphasize more straightforward military scenery. In the best of these, the rhythmic dynamics of the struggling troops creates a palpable energy. A Dike Bursting Toward Coevorden shows the aftermath of a fortuitous (for the Dutch) event: leaking dikes washing away enemy troops, as well as flooding the farms surrounding the city.

The subjects and formats of the second room are more far-flung. Politics, propaganda and caricature serve as something of an anchor.

Scenes of events in the life of William of Orange are numerous. He was an important figure in both Dutch and English history (stadtholder in the Netherlands, later king of England).

Queen Mary's lying-in-state, a 1695 print commemorating the ceremony following the death of William's wife and English co-ruler, is dazzlingly baroque in its command of interior space. The overall symmetry of the architecture is masterfully countered by the directedness of the crowd towards the seated king at left. Mary herself lies in an elaborate bed in the middle, both a centerpiece and overlooked.

The same gallery gives us a sampling of the diverse subjects to which De Hooghe lent his talent. Particularly interesting are three illustrations included in Nicolaes Petter's 1674 treatise on the use of wrestling as self-defense. These illustrations feature two recurring combatants. The dynamism and unusual sparseness of the subject-matter affords the printmaker opportunity for some of his best work with the human body.

The intersection of landscape art and cartography is one of the show's most compelling themes. You can see it in the removed perspective and topographical focus of many of his battle scenes. An exciting 1672 image of The Siege of Groeningen combines a panoramic landscape (city in background, mayhem in front), a bird's-eye view and schematic regional map.

More naturalistic and more profound, however, is the second gallery's astonishing aerial view of The citadel and town of Mont Melian in Savoy. We see, from a foreground hill (moving forward) a sparsely wooded valley, a bridge-path traversing a river towards a partially fortified settlement, in its center is a steep hillside supporting an angular fortress. The rendering overall is perhaps the liveliest in show and the sense of deep space is vertiginous.

The foreground is weirder. Arrayed center to right is a crowd of figures (in typically shadowed style, here not too heavy-handed), among them several cartographers gathered around a picture-within-a-picture — an upturned document showing a schematic rendering of the distant fortress. The image breaks with the illusionism of the whole, as if collaged on.

"Virtuoso Etcher" is a rare opportunity to see work by this distinguished but lesser-known printmaker. Although his characteristically Baroque visual and narrative density can be off-putting to the modern eye, the work does reward the careful scrutiny it demands