Animal kingdom: That’s a print

The Portland Art Museum's new "Kingdom Animalia" showcases five hundred years of prints of animals, from Dürer to Picasso and beyond

When I dropped into the Portland Art Museum a few days ago I slipped quickly past the giant robotic monstery thing looming over the entrance to the Animating Life exhibition of designs from the Laika movie studio, beyond earshot of the strange rumble of noise emanating from the animations like a troubled stomach under the influence of Alka-Seltzer. My destination was down the stairs to one of my favorite spots in the museum, the comforting and vastly quieter graphic arts galleries.

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), “Die wunderbare Sau von Landser (The Monstrous Sow of Landser),” ca. 1496, engraving on antique laid paper, The Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Art Collection, public domain, 2007.59.2

The exhibition Kingdom Animalia: Animals in Print from Dürer to Picasso had opened just a few days earlier, and a nice small crowd was wandering through, spending some quality time with the almost sixty prints on view. It’s a brisk stroll through five centuries of art, with explorations of the animal kingdom as disparate as Dürer’s grotesque The Monstrous Sow of Landser; Franz Marc’s placid yet quietly energetic Tierlegende (Animal Legend), a small woodcut of an idyllic, almost Eden-like gathering of harmonious beasts; and Adolf Dehn’s actual, if imaginary, scene from Eden, 1945’s Before the Fall, which shows a very hairy Adam holding a sly snake aloft, a flirty Eve discreetly hiding her privates with a showgirl’s fan, and a garden full of animals who seem to have a glancing kinship with Maurice Sendak’s wild things.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901), “Le Jockey (The Jockey),” 1899, color lithograph on China paper, Museum Purchase: Ella M. Hirsch Fund, public domain, 41.10.3

Kingdom Animalia includes a few big splashy pieces, like Andy Warhol’s bright and bold Cow and a pair of colorful and charming 1890s nightclub-advertisement lithographs with cats by Théophile-Alexandre Steinle, plus a few prints that play bigger than their actual size, like Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1899 color lithograph Le Jockey, an exciting middle-of-the-race scene that’s reminiscent of Manet’s and Degas’ horse-racing paintings.

Pablo Picasso, “Le Taureau (Bull),” 1946, lithograph on cream wove paper, Museum Purchase: Caroline Ladd Pratt Fund, © artist or other rights holder, 50.1

But prints are often private passions, meant for personal contemplation and appreciation of the mastery of line and craft that goes into the discipline, and often that comes through most potently in black-and-white etchings, lithographs, woodblocks, and the like. This exhibition has plenty of those, and the likeness in technique allows prints from across the centuries to sit snugly side by side in familial conversation.

“Camel,” 17th century or later,Iran, unknown artist, ink and watercolor on beige wove paper.

Mary Weaver Chapin, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, has done similar elegant exhibitions on topics as diverse as food and famine, artists in their studios, and graphic art from the First World War, drawing from the museum’s own large print collection and strategic borrowings. In the equally elegant Kingdom Animalia she includes works by the likes of Goya, Hogarth, Audubon (through his printers), Claude Lorrain, Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Ed Ruscha, Tony Fitzpatrick, Frank Boyden, a half-dozen by Beth Van Hoesen, and a superbly fierce dog by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Frank Charlie (Canadian; Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, born 1952), “Sea Bear,” 1975-1977, color screenprint on Carlyle Japan White paper, Gift of Carl Abbott and Margery Post Abbott, © unknown, research required, 2016.107.1

The show has little stories to be told: Dürer created his strange and unsettling pig, for instance, from eyewitness reports of a sow with “one head, four ears, two bodies, eight feet on six of which it stood, and two tongues.” And Picasso’s 1946 lithograph Le Taureau (Bull), with its astonishing minimal use of line, is the final print in a famous series of prints that in eleven states went from rigorously realistic to splendidly suggestive, dropping out more detail at every stop along the way.

Right now this is the best bestiary in town. And it stays in place through May 13, so you have plenty of time to go down and scratch it behind the ears.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Guardian de la paz (Guardian of the Peace),” 1947, lithograph on cream wove paper, Museum Purchase: Marion McGill Lawrence Fund, © artist or other rights holder, 92.194.1

 

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