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Review: 'The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900' @ UCLA Hammer Museum

April 30, 2009 |  3:00 pm

It-is-the-Devil Abjection, violence, obsession, solitude, death — the buoyant Impressionist era in Europe, marked by rollicking cafe and boulevard life and gay outings into the sun-dappled countryside, is usually described with words rather different from these dark and ominous terms. But there they are, inscribed all over a modest but engrossing new exhibition of late 19th century etchings (plus a few lithographs, small sculptures and other works) at the UCLA Hammer Museum.

The show opens with German artist Eugen Napoleon Neureuther's 1839 self-portrait at work in an etching studio, and it sets the tone. The image is small, demanding close perusal. The artist, his eyes shielded by round glasses, checks his timepiece while an assistant pours acid into a shallow pan, preparing to etch a plate. The assistant wears a scarf to protect his mouth and nose from the acid's noxious fumes. Art is equated with dangerous pursuits, the artist as a kind of mad scientist cooking up trouble in his lab.

By 1878, Félix Hilaire Buhot was depicting a master printer as the devil, the undulating distortions of his gnarled body merging with the wavy clouds of acid fumes rising from the process. The 19th century revival of etching, with its deliberate gradations of tone achieved through slow and careful effort, with acid washes biting into metal, seems an appropriately satanic method. But other printing techniques also came into effective play: In a startling 1888 lithograph, “It Is the Devil,” Odilon Redon creates a blackened soup from which the beast's bony face flickers into view.

“The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900” sets itself in opposition to the more public arts of painting and outdoor sculpture that we casually associate with the Impressionist era. Few of its 94 prints are the sort of art one would hang on the parlor wall.

Instead, this is art that would be kept in a folio under the bed or in a drawer, or perhaps published within the pages of a book stored on a shelf — something to be pulled out and examined closely, privately, rather than used to adorn an interior. The intimate nature of the work is reflected in the subjective, interior states of consciousness reflected in its imagery.

Moonlight Of course, the sharp divisions between public and private, light and dark or sociability and solitude on which the show depends are not exactly nuanced. Charles Baudelaire, the great journalist and critic whose writings form the foundation for later Impressionist developments, was nothing if not a tortured soul. The celebrated author of “The Painter of Modern Life” also penned “Les Fleurs du mal” — the flowers of evil — and he translated the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe from English into French for publication in the newspaper.

The prints in this show actually indicate the lingering interest in earlier, late 18th century Romantic themes in France, Britain, Germany and Belgium as the 19th century unfolded. It's as if Romanticism went underground, from paintings into prints. There's a Gothic side to light, and its gloominess is evident in Edvard Munch's “Moonlight” (1895), in which a backlighted figure sits on the edge of the bed by a window, moonlight streaming in to cast a shadowy cross on the floor at the figure's feet .

It's also detected in James McNeill Whistler's “Nocturne” (1878), with its misty riverfront overtones of urban decay; Käthe Kollwitz's “At the Church Wall” (1893), in which a woman shields her face with her hand as the oppressive wall behind her seems poised to crush her spirit rather than uplift it; and even Edgar Degas' obsessively erotic “Woman by a Fireplace” (1880/90), where his model suggestively warms her buttocks by the fire as her maid dries her hair.

The Swiss artist Karl Stauffer-Bern renders a handsome male nude but not as a classically inspired figure of heroic elegance or Hellenistic dynamism. Instead, this body is a beautiful corpse, laid out on a slab for the viewer's absorbed delectation.

The-Moles The languid reverie provided by morphine (Albert Besnard); captured vermin strung up on tree limbs by a farmer (Félix Bracquemond); throngs of people crowding the base of a Gothic cathedral, the tracery of its soaring forms more brittle than delicate, more threatening than comforting (James Ensor); a domestic interior as a place of refuge for the heart and soul (Anders Zorn, Mary Cassatt) — the range of imagery is wide. Peter Parshall, curator of Old Master prints at Washington's National Gallery, from whose collection most of the works have been borrowed and where the exhibition travels next, has grouped the works according to theme — the city, creatures, death, etc.

At their least appealing, the prints enter moralizing territory. Charles Émile Jacque's “Mousetrap” (1860) shows three hugely fat mice ensnared by the neck, apparently as a warning against the perils of gluttony, while an empty fourth trap awaits — you? Thanks for your concern, Charles.

The show comes with an informative if somewhat difficult-to-search catalog (the index is sparse). It also goes very well with the artistic obsessions charted in the Hammer's current exhibition of recent Los Angeles painting, sculpture, photography and installation art, “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.”

One great pleasure is the chance to see Max Klinger's full 1880 narrative suite, “Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove,” 10 etchings that seem almost Surrealist in their imaginative dreaminess. Klinger, a German Symbolist artist who was enamored of Goya's often-harrowing prints, based the work on a woman's glove he said he found at a roller-skating rink. In his narrative, the glove becomes a pre-Freudian object of fetishistic obsession, leading to outlandish events.

In the most beguiling of the 10 etchings, the glove rides in an erotic carriage drawn by prancing white horses. In the most anxiety-ridden, it's an enormous hand looming over a distraught man who cowers in the corner of his bed, engulfed by the nightmarish, many-fingered monstrosity. And in the most famous image, it's stolen by a pterodactyl, who clutches the glove in its long beak as the creature flies out the window of a bourgeois house.

Klinger's episodic experimentation is radical. In this nonlinear, almost hallucinatory narrative, the relationship between drawing and the graphic art of printmaking comes to the foreground. Drawing is the most direct expression of artistic thought, connecting paper to subjective impulses. Its translation into the more laborious and considered process of making etchings seems downright subversive — raw expression washed in an acid bath.

— Christopher Knight

“The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900,” UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Ends June 28.  $7. http://hammer.ucla.edu

Top: Odilon Redon's "It is the Devil." Middle: Edvard Munch's "Moonlight." Bottom: Félix Bracquemond's "The Moles." Credit: UCLA Hammer Museum

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