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Old Master Prints Capture Three Centuries of War at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

HOUSTON, TX.- Centuries before photography and television, civilians got their first visual taste of war in prints made possible by advancement in the development of papermaking, and the invention of special printing presses. The prints were relatively inexpensive and were collected by people from all strata of society who displayed them in their homes or businesses, framed or simply tacked to the wall. Some of the images were created as historical record; many were commissioned by the ruling powers to manipulate public opinion. On February 7, 2009, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will open The Plains of Mars: European War Prints, 1500-1825, from the Collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, an exhibition of more than 100 Old Master prints focusing on war. The works were carefully assembled over the last decade to address the subject artistically and as a social phenomenon. The exhibition will be on view through May 10, 2009 in the Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street.

"The museum is pleased to collaborate with the Blaffer Foundation on this compelling exhibition," said Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. "These historical works provide a unique perspective on the intersection of art, information, and politics, and help to deepen our understanding of the ever-relevant topic of war, and of the role of art in representing man´s best and worst instincts."

The exhibition is organized by the MFAH and the Blaffer Foundation, under the direction of James Clifton, director of the Blaffer Foundation and MFAH curator of Renaissance and Baroque painting. The two institutions share a long partnership: the MFAH provides permanent exhibition space for the foundation´s collection in the Beck Building and promotes its mission to travel works to museums and galleries throughout Texas. The foundation´s collection of early European paintings is complemented by a substantial collection of Old Master prints expanded over the years under Clifton´s guidance. A previous print show, A Portrait of the Artist, 1500-1825: Prints from the Collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, opened at the MFAH in 2004 and continues to travel.

Clifton and Leslie Scattone, assistant curator of the foundation, found inspiration for The Plains of Mars in Francisco de Goya´s The Disasters of Wars (1810-20), the famous series of 80 etchings acquired by the foundation in 1979. They selected a sampling of Goya´s harsh and poignant prints and supplemented them with nearly 90 engravings, woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, and aquatints to create a full-scale exhibition examining the perpetual theme of war and peace. The works—by artists from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland—depict 325 years of conflicts ranging roughly from the French invasion of Italy in 1494 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1814 and their aftermath. A selection of 17th- to 19th-century illustrated books also will be included in the exhibition.

During the period covered by the exhibition, Europe was in an almost constant state of warfare. Prints, which were in widespread use by the 15th century following the development of papermaking, became powerful weapons for disseminating ideas to a broad audience during these conflicts.

"While these early prints brought images of war to the masses for the first time," Clifton said, "it was, with a few exceptions, an aestheticized view, largely because of the medium—small black-and-white images on paper. But that artistic distance also contributed to their appeal: They provided a way to observe the war, as one Dutch publisher said, without the risk of being shot."

The prints in The Plains of Mars are divided into four thematic sections, with considerable overlap and interplay: soldiers; soldiers and civilians; battle; and peace. The representation of soldiers ranges from the 16th-century Germany mercenary, or Landsknecht, in sophisticated costume to bedraggled Napoleonic veterans. Most of the prints depicting encounters between soldiers and civilians document atrocities. While artists took some imaginative liberty with their interpretations of soldiers, they often reconstructed battle scenes from written sources. Nearly all of the battle scenes in the exhibition address specific historical events. Images representing peace include both allegories and those intended as historical record.

Among the highlights:

• The Two Armies at the Battle of Ravenna (1512/18) by Master Na Dat (or the Master with the Mousetrap). This extremely rare image, one of only eight known impressions of the first state of the print, depicts a moment of quiet as two armies prepare to battle before the city of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The conflict involved nearly 40,000 men, the French cavalry supplemented with German mercenaries on one side and forces from Spain and Italy on the other.

• The Surrender of John Frederick, Elector of Saxony, after the Battle of Mühlberg, 1547 (c. 1555/63) by Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert after Maarten van Heemskerck. This engraving depicts Frederick´s surrender to the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Habsburg, as a simultaneous narrative, with the battle underway in the background and its results, the surrender, in the foreground. The engraving is elaborately hand-colored using the precious metallic pigments of gold and silver.

• Return from Russia (1818) by Théodore Géricault. This work, considered a masterpiece of early lithography, shows a grenadier who has lost his right arm wearily leading a blinded cuirassier on horseback across the bleak terrain. The artist´s inspiration was Napoleon´s occupation of Moscow and subsequent retreat from Russia in 1812. The campaign, and the retreat during the severe Russian winter without adequate provisions, cost nearly 1 million lives.

• Goya´s The Disasters of War (1810-20). In response to the brutal war that followed Napoleon´s invasion of Spain, Goya created this series of etchings with aquatint. The prints do not depict the war itself, but its "fatal consequences": conflicts between soldiers and civilians, and the starvation, degradation, brutalization, and oppression of civilians. For political reasons, the series was not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya´s death.

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