By Aubrey Hobart
Curator of Collections
Roswell Museum and Art Center
Have you ever seen artwork by Pablo Picasso in person? I’m guessing it was in a big city, like New York City or Paris, France. So, would it shock you to learn that there are actually two Picassos that found their home right here in Roswell? I was certainly surprised, when I arrived, to learn that the Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC) has works by several very famous European artists.
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The reason we have this collection is because in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, RMAC’s board and staff — spearheaded by Don Anderson — believed that it was very important to have examples of what was then considered to be the finest art in the world: Art made by prominent European men from the last five centuries. These days, art historians don’t believe that some art is intrinsically better than other art, but at the time, if you wanted to show that you lived in a sophisticated city with intelligent and educated people, you had to have famous artists in your museum. However, a painting by Picasso was incredibly expensive, even 60 years ago, so instead, RMAC started its international print collection. Prints were made in multiples, so they were easier and less expensive to collect. Over a couple of decades, the museum built up a collection of nearly a hundred works by artists whose names you might recognize.
One of the earliest of these pieces is Albrecht Dürer’s illustration of a moment in the life of Jesus, when he revealed his resurrected self to two disciples at Emmaus. This tiny woodblock print depicts Jesus seated at the head of the table, in the center of the image, while his followers turn back to look at him. He is surrounded by a truly radiant halo that takes up nearly a third of the entire picture. This piece was first printed in 1510, just 60 years after Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe and made the mass production of illustrations possible. Dürer is probably the best known German artist of the Renaissance.
Another print we have at RMAC was created about 130 years later by another familiar name: Rembrandt Van Rijn. Better known as Rembrandt, this Dutch artist was part of the Baroque movement. Instead of the clarity of the Renaissance, the Baroque headed in the opposite direction, embracing drama and shadows. For example, the small print we have depicts a young man sitting in a twisted position with his face turned away from the viewer. This work was created using an engraving technique, rather than woodblock, which means that while Dürer was having to carve into wood, necessitating thicker lines and fewer prints before the block was worn away, Rembrandt carved into metal, so his lines are extremely fine and he could make and sell many more prints of the same image.
If we fast-forward through time, and skip the work of artists like the French Romantic, Eugene Delacroix, or the Post-Impressionist painter of decadent Parisian nightlife, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, we come to Pablo Picasso, a Spanish artist who co-invented Cubism and changed the entire course of modern art in the 20th century. One of the pieces we have is a simple line drawing of Picasso’s friend, the author Robert (Roby) Godet that was drawn on a printing plate so that Roby could include it in his book “L’Age de Soleil” (1950). However, the printing process means that any image is going to be reversed, so when Picasso wrote “Pour Roby” on the print, the words were printed backward.
Another famous name in RMAC’s collection is Picasso’s countryman, Salvador Dalí, the best known Surrealist artist. You’ve probably seen his painting of the melted watches and clocks, which is called “The Persistence of Memory” (1931). This image was so popular that he revisited the idea many times. In fact, one of our five Dalí pieces features this motif. Like Picasso’s Roby sketch, the clock numbers and the text on our print were printed backward. If you look especially closely, you can see that the number one is missing on the clock, as well.
The other surrealist whose name you might recognize is Rene Magritte. If you’ve seen a picture of a man wearing a suit and bowler hat with a green apple obscuring his face, you’ve seen the work of this Belgian artist. His print in RMAC’s collection features a crumbling stone tower with branching, tree-like roots beneath as if the tower has naturally grown up from the ground.
I hope to feature many of these prints in an exhibition someday, but until I can show them to you in person, I’ll keep sharing interesting things with you here in our local newspaper and on RMAC’s Facebook page as part of the weekly Museum Moments video series. Stay strong, Roswell!