King Copper

New exhibit proves old medium still reigns

The Phoenix Art Museum has wasted little time in living up to the cultural promise of its expansion and renovation. Barely two years into its new digs, the museum is drawing record crowds with its exhibition of Egyptian art and artifacts. Since it opened in October, the mummy show, as the kids are calling it, has attracted more than 135,000 visitors and boosted PAM's membership by a whopping 7,600--up from about 5,500 to nearly 13,000. PAM's overall 1998 attendance of 310,000 is more than 50 percent higher than in 1997.

Now comes "Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper, 1575-1775."

This sensational exhibition of a little-examined area of "Old Masters" art should attract anyone who loves great painting. Though it lacks the popular Indiana-Jones appeal of Egyptian tomb furnishings, its ambitious scope and scholarship--a weighty catalogue is due out in February--make it an even greater milestone for the museum.

The show's 87 paintings come from some of the world's more notable museums and private collections. The works are from such renowned artists as Frans Hals, El Greco, Rembrandt, Chardin and Jan Brueghel the Elder. And there's a great mix here of lesser and little-known artists--all from Europe and North and South America--who excelled at the demanding craft and near-miniature scale of painting on copper.

It would be foolish to think this is the first serious or important exhibition Phoenix Art Musuem has undertaken in its nearly 40-year history. Its previous exhibitions of Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings, Diego Rivera's cubist paintings, 18th-century Chinese paintings and Victorian works from John Ruskin's era came with similar cultural heft. However, "Copper as Canvas" is a rare convergence of topnotch images, curation and institutional collaborators. The fact that it sits down the hall from the Egyptian show bolsters the notion that PAM is evolving into one of the premier art museums in the Southwest.

The exhibition was organized by PAM's chief curator, Michael Komanecky, with the cooperation of the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Royal Cabinet of Paintings at Mauritshuis in the Hague--both of which will host the show after it leaves Phoenix.

Komanecky says artists working in Florence, Parma and Rome popularized the use of copper around the 1530s. From there the practice spread to northern Europe with artists who had studied in Italy.

It isn't difficult to understand why, for some painters, copper was king. The colors in these works have a jewel-like detailing and intensity that simply can't be achieved in paintings on canvas or wood panels--the two other surfaces most often used by artists in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Part of that is due to the difference between the surface texture of copper and that of the other materials. Early in the exhibition, two displays comparing the look of paintings on these varied surfaces reveal what a clumsy partner the weave of fabric and grain of wood could be in a dance with paint.

What's clear is that flat copper plates--similar to ones used to create engravings--enabled artists to achieve surfaces that were startlingly smooth and serene.

Komanecky says that initially the smoothness of the plates posed some technical difficulties. Oil paint often flaked off the slick sheets. So, artists learned to abrade them with pumice or ash, and found that garlic helped to degrease the copper and give it the necessary tooth to hold paint.

A few artists here--most notably Rembrandt and Hals--experimented with the heavier, more expressive brush strokes favored by later centuries of artists and collectors. However, most of the painters built their images on copper out of gossamer layers of pigment.

If modern painting lives on the surface, the reality of these works appears to exist beneath it. Copper provided an ideal ground to accentuate the extraordinary post-Renaissance illusion of people, animals, things, vistas and spaces inside the painting.

Christian Seybold's "Portrait of an Old Woman," is one of the more breathtaking examples. It's painted with a clarity and delicacy that seem to transform the pigment into the very stuff of life. The fur stole around the woman's neck has a softness that practically tickles. And the face itself appears real enough to fog a mirror. Godfried Schalcken's dual portraits of his wife and himself have a similar though more distant hyper-reality.

Komanecky says the highly refined surfaces and details of many of the show's paintings can be traced to tricks of the craft. Instead of using brushes, for instance, which leave discernible surface strokes, some artists relied on feathers, fingers or the palm of a hand to apply a smooth base layer of color.

Still, the most compelling trick is optical. The reflection of light off the copper and back through the transparent layers of paint gives these works a glow and bigness that belie their relatively small size--often no larger than the screen of a lap-top computer.

Paintings on copper were a showoff medium of virtuoso performances in paint. And not only for the painters. Their refinement and portability made them prized possessions of wealthy, influential collectors, who often kept them in cabinets and brought them out for friends to ogle and pass around. Many of these works were made at a time when the spread of books and bookmaking technology--particularly in northern Europe--was freeing artists from having to paint Christian liturgy. Yet papal patronage continued to keep Christ in the picture. Moreover, copper clearly added some zip to the appearance of holy light that biblical scenes required.

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