It has taken a while, but here it is: a National Gallery exhibition full of ugly art.
"Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public," the first show in the gallery's packed fall season, doesn't just shed lots of new light on how printmaking as we know it got its start. It doesn't merely give a new perspective on late-medieval pictures as a whole. It brings up the big questions about what is art, what it's good for and what role beauty plays in it.
The exhibition is the first international survey of the initial century or so of European prints, focusing especially on the woodcuts pioneered in southern Germany about 1420. It features close to 150 images out of the 5,000 or so that have come down to us. If that 5,000 represents even half the total produced, and if each image was printed around 100 times -- some woodblocks could have lasted through 1,000 impressions -- then at the very least a million prints went into circulation during the 15th century.
But for all the interest and the plenty of this show, don't expect a demonstration of the glories of late medieval or early Renaissance art. Visually speaking, most of its prints are simple, undemanding things. They tend to reduce the complexities and subtleties of their era's high-end art production to bold outlines filled in with flat areas of watercolor.
The growing interest in realistic light, space, form and texture that is typical of the most advanced painting of the period is barely hinted at in these prints. I imagine that a pair of sacred images with black backgrounds, probably printed in the 1430s in Bohemia or Austria, must have been meant to imitate the kind of dramatic, fire-lit night scenes that were just then becoming possible in the finest art. But you realize what their maker had in mind only when you notice that the print of the Holy Family features cooking flames and that there's an oil lamp in the one of St. Jerome. There's no attempt to render the light those sources cast.
Even the virtuoso finish that was so highly prized in late-medieval culture -- that was so clearly a central part of what beauty was all about in the later Middle Ages -- is missing in these prints. Most of their woodblocks are cut just well enough to show the scene that they portray and to stand up to the printing process. They are hardly demonstrations of a great medieval craftsman's infinite patience. (It's not a matter of the medium itself: Woodblock printing in pre-industrial Japan was as refined as anything could be.) Compared with the immaculate exquisiteness of the ivory statuettes, glowing altarpieces or sleek suits of armor produced near the same time, these works fall absolutely flat.
But then they were never meant to look particularly good. Most of the prints in this exhibition were meant to do hard, everyday religious work -- getting the saints onside; focusing the mind on Bible stories -- that visual refinement might even have distracted from. One coarsely designed woodblock shows the ultra-obscure Saint Kakukilla spinning thread while rats climb everywhere around her; one of them is even perching on her head. The print's text, probably also meant to be recited as an invocation by its owners, tells us that the saint is good at keeping vermin off -- though you'd never guess it from how badly she's infested in the image itself.
In a more appealing, less clumsy print of Saint Jerome and his pet lion from the National Gallery's holdings, some owner wrote a few lines of execrable Latin across its top, insisting that the print will chase the demons out of anyone who sees it.
The more grammatical, rhyming Latin text printed with one early image of Saint Christopher tells us that "On whatever day the face of Christopher you view / Truly an ill death will never come to you."
Early prints were put to every kind of use you could imagine. Some schematic ones were meant as memory aids: A simple diagram could help a priest keep track of the details of Mass or of the more obscure tenets of medieval theology. Others were meant to stir up anti-Semitism (the show includes a gory image of a child said to have been killed by Jews), or get a laugh (there's a print of the pope and Holy Roman Emperor wrestling in their underwear) or transmit geographical or medical information (we get to see the first printed diagram of a human skeleton) or permit a game of cards.
Which brings us to a longstanding hypothesis, for which unfortunately there's almost no hard evidence, that suggests printmaking took off when card games became the rage in Europe. What craftsman wouldn't look for a way out of drawing the same 52 images, day after day? With textile printing already underway, paper more available than ever and a growing demand for images of every kind -- as cards, maybe, but also as clip art for the manuscripts that newly reformed monasteries were turning out in heaps -- it's no wonder that printmaking came along. Where there's a will, a way and a demand, you'll soon get a product up for sale.
One demand that early prints were almost never meant to fill was for the oohs and aahs of high aesthetic satisfaction. There were luxury goods that clearly did that job in late medieval Europe. With some top-notch medieval art objects, the attention paid to making them look good clearly went beyond what any function could call for. Compared to those, the prints in this exhibition would clearly have proclaimed their own inadequacy. Or rather, they would have clearly stated that they weren't even in the game.
That doesn't mean that these objects can simply be declared definitively ugly and unartful, as though there were some kind of objective, external standard by which to measure such values. Just about every culture has a way of making things that follows some coherent set of rules for form and composition, and that provides some kind of visual satisfaction. There were basic chops for imagemaking that flowed everywhere across medieval European culture, and even the simplest of these early prints conform to them. From a modern, post-Picasso perspective, it's even possible to wax lyrical, as one of the exhibition's catalogue essays does, about the "linear beauty" in these images -- about the "incredible grace and rhythm" of their bold lines that "meander into undefined depths, suggesting a subjective space."
In terms of their own day, however, the virtues of these prints only barely came from their aesthetics. One owner cheerfully used scissors to mangle a print of the Crucifixion, getting rid of characters that didn't suit the story it was being used to illustrate. Other prints were copied, or even printed from old blocks, so many decades after they were first designed that they would have looked completely out of date -- if, that is, what they looked like had even mattered.
These prints may have been part of their era's larger "visual culture." (That's the term of art now used in academia for all the pictures, of any kind, produced by a society.) But they weren't part of the tiny subset of that culture that, at just around this time, was coming to count as art.
Some people feel that for a show -- or even a book -- to concentrate on such objects of non-art is a kind of betrayal of the mission of museums and art history. There's a sense that the study of "visual culture" represents a leveling tendency, where any object is declared as good as any other and where the Master of the Playing Cards is declared Leonardo da Vinci's rival just by virtue of being granted the same kind of attention, in the same institutions. But you could also argue that you have to understand the full range of things that images can and have been used to do if you hope to understand the specialness of those very few that have also been meant to work as art.
The last object in this exhibition, and the only painting in it, helps underline this point. The National Gallery owns a matched pair of portraits, exquisitely painted in about 1455 by the great Flemish master Petrus Christus, which concludes the show. The right-hand panel, portraying a gorgeously dressed woman at prayer in a simple interior, also shows a crude, early woodcut print she's glued to her rear wall with sealing wax. It's meant to convince us of this elite woman's simple tastes and humble piety. She's not the kind of woman, her fancy portrait tells us, who cares for fancy works of art. Her woodblock print is meant to represent the opposite extreme from the fine painting that reveals it to us. And, of course, the artful painting gains in the comparison.
Origins of European Printmaking was organized by National Gallery curator Peter Parshall and by Rainer Schoch of the National Museum of German Art and Culture in Nuremberg, the other major lender to the show. It includes not only the prints, but also some of the blocks they were printed from, the books they were often glued into, the block-printed textiles that may have launched their technology, and the medieval pilgrims' trinkets, cast from molds, that helped promote concepts of mass production and mechanical reproduction. The exhibition runs through Nov. 27 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the Mall at Seventh St. NW. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.