May 4 - August 27, 2010
What are the qualities of the printed image and how do they allow it to construct and communicate knowledge? What new forms of knowledge did prints allow to emerge in the early modern period, when the bright line between science and art had yet to be drawn? More broadly: what did prints make possible?
The images and objects in this exhibition, loaned from Harvard collections and grouped into themes that cut across disciplinary boundaries, offer a range of answers. One section shows how time, a phenomenon that leaves its mark on nature yet is itself invisible, was eloquently visualized in both prints and instruments. Another suggests the imaginary basis of all knowledge when it is structured by visual means - from a 'city of memory' in whose edifices a student stores and retrieves abstract concepts, to the map of an imaginary land symbolizing a French literary society, to the exoticizing allegory of a continent.
Prints were never sheer reflections of their subject matter, even in ostensibly more empirical kinds of scientific illustration. A section on scale shows how this factor was necessarily involved - or cleverly manipulated - in representations of natural phenomena lying outside the normal field of vision, such as Galileo's images of the lunar surface. Another section explores anatomical prints in the wake of Vesalius, arguing that artists lent authority, objectivity, and palatability to their representations of cadavers by playing on the contemporary fascination with classical sculpture.
A range of techniques and uses are in evidence, from woodblocks to engravings and from loose-leaf sheets to book illustrations - not to mention a small but impressive selection of scientific instruments, whose making indeed often required engraving. A section on technique reveals the collaborations and physical operations that lay behind these "paper worlds," displaying, among other things, an actual sixteenth century woodblock.
What comes across throughout is that prints did not simply disseminate the knowledge projects of early modern Europeans; rather, they were instrumental in creating them.