Domestic Disturbance: Grim themes pervade prints at the Smart Museum’s “The Darker Side of Light”

On one wall, a woman cradles her dead child in her arms. On another, bloody birds are tacked to a barn door. Turn around and you will find–if your eyes are sharp enough to see across the dimly lit gallery–soulless corpses hovering above a dark Parisian skyline, victims of a cholera epidemic. You’ve been warned: “The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900,” the new exhibit at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, is not for the faint of heart.

“The ‘darker side’,” explained Anne Leonard, the Chicago curator of the exhibit, at its opening last Thursday afternoon, “means a kind of different look at this period of art history that we often associate with Impressionism: outdoors, people lolling on the grass having picnics.” Peter Parshall, the curator of Old Master prints at the National Gallery of Art and organizer of the show (as well as a UofC alum), was slated to give a lecture during the opening’s food and drink reception, but snow and bad weather prevented his arrival. Leonard, then, led a tour of the gallery on her own.

Primarily composed of prints–etchings, lithographs, drypoints–from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, “The Darker Side of Light” does indeed portray subject matters not often addressed in more popular works from the time period. The curators framed the exhibition around seven categories–Nature, Creatures, City, Obsession, Reverie, Abjection, and Violence & Death–and grouped them accordingly on the gallery walls. Leonard led the tour through the gallery, each theme darker than the last, the group of curious students gradually growing quieter. As she shared background on the exhibit and the individual works, stories of death, vice, and loneliness sent her listeners into solemn contemplation of the dark images around them. Leonard explained, “There’s something about this medium [of printmaking] that encouraged people to explore new subject matters, taboo topics, the ills of society.”

The second half of the exhibition’s title, “Arts of Privacy,” proposes a possible explanation as to why. Most of the works included in the show were originally intended for ownership by private collectors, an audience that was more appreciative of touchy subjects and more generous with artistic license. Printmaking is particularly well-suited to these conditions. As prints get larger, it becomes harder for an artist to make an even impression from a plate, so smaller pieces are preferred. The texture and nuance lent to works by techniques such as etching and drypoint are better appreciated up close, meant to be enjoyed in dim light so as to preserve the integrity of light-sensitive papers. “Most of this art is intended to be viewed in domestic environments,” said Leonard. “It’s kept in desk drawers, folios, tucked away in cabinets. This is the kind of thing that would be in peoples’ libraries. It’s not wallpaper–you have to take it out, like a book off of the shelf.”

The works in the exhibit are not famous museum pieces, but neither are their creators obscure artists. Works signed by Kollwitz, Munch, and Toulouse-Lautrec are not so surprising, as their more popular works often deal with the seedier side of life–but artists such as Degas, Cassatt, and Corot, whose names have become synonymous with the lighter, airier, style of Impressionism, also make appearances. Regardless of his or her reputation, each artist displays a deep and sometimes unexpected understanding of the art of printmaking, both its technical capacity for shade and shadow, and the unique qualities that made it so well suited to the intimate, difficult subject matter of their time. “The artists try to manage the difference between light and dark,” Leonard said with a tight smile, aware of the pun she was making, “but they use more dark than light.”
Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through June 13. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10am-4pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. (773)702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu