INSIDE THE NATIONAL GALLERY'S WEST BUILDING, a banner proclaims: "Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travel on Paper 1450-1700." Perhaps some might skip this invitation in search of something more contemporary. But that would be a mistake.
Virginia Grace Tuttle, associate curator of old master prints at the National Gallery, has chosen and arranged roughly 60 works to lead viewers on a journey through European perceptions and depictions of travel. The works on display, most from the gallery's own collection, include woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and mezzotints.
Granted, most people don't know the difference between an etching, which uses acid to make marks on a plate, and an engraving, which doesn't. Prints simply don't get the attention they used to. In the fifteenth century, however, the print was vital. As the classical world was being unearthed and a new world on the other side of the Atlantic was being explored, there arose a real need to convey pictures to those home in Europe--and the print, which could be reproduced easily and on a grand scale, was the best way to do so.
During those times artists rarely ventured abroad, so they depended on their imaginations and the accounts of others who had. As a result, much of what they produced features a touch of the fantastic.
For example: One of the highlights of the new National Gallery show is Albrecht Dürer's 1513 engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil, which borrows Erasmus's ideal of the Christian knight. In this print, a knight with a solid jaw rides through a landscape fraught with temptations and one-horned monsters. His heavenly destination gleams in the upper register: the city on a hill. A severe juxtaposition between light and dark compounded with a second juxtaposition, no less severe, between man and monster offers an allegory for life's journey as a pilgrim's progress.
Another work takes a different approach: hyperbole. A print by Niccolò Nelli (dated 1564) depicts "Cockaigne," an imaginary land designed to delight gluttons, provided that they never work. (If they dare lift a hammer, they are promptly thrown behind prison bars made of sausage!) In Cockaigne, fowl descend from the sky to the table, a pot continually spews forth ravioli, and the sea runs as wine. In his print, Nelli takes eating to such an extreme that it becomes a vice instead of a simple pleasure.
As the Renaissance flourished and the world grew smaller, people needed guides to help them navigate not merely imaginary places like Cockaigne, but actual places, too. As a result, maps became an important part of the art market. Besides offering topographical details, they included other practical information for travelers, such as how to lure foreign women or avoid confrontation with cannibals.
ANOTHER ROOM of the exhibition takes onlookers to the New World. Visitors crowding around these prints see a familiar sight--America's outline--twist beneath the sixteenth and seventeenth century cartographer's eye. Works here include large, elegant maps and prints of individual people and pieces of the New World: there are four mezzotints of Iroquois chieftains as well as studies of a skunk-like cat and an exceedingly round fish.
Artists did not hesitate to make some prints that traded more in fancy than fact. For instance, one work depicts a fountain of youth in what would someday become Florida: It shows old people in young bodies worshiping king Priapus with erotic abandon.
"Fabulous Journeys" is on display until September 16 and of all its many charms, perhaps the most unexpected is that the museum allows the prints to speak for themselves. There are no flashy texts or colors--no elements added in an attempt to make the show more appealing or "relevant." Instead, the delicate black-and-white works hang on warm grey and hunter green walls.
"Fabulous Journeys" offers a ticket to the great cities and ways of old--and all for the handsome price of nothing.
Katherine Eastland is an intern at The Weekly Standard.