February 28, 2012

Altered and adorned: an interview with Suzanne Karr Schmidt

Message box with hand-painted print, Germany, 1490s. Featured in
Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Kimberly Nichols, Altered and Adorned.

Today I'm pleased to offer up Res Obscura's very first guest post: an interview conducted by Hasan Niyazi of the popular art history blog Three Pipe Problem. I've been a big fan of this blog since discovering it last year and really enjoy its commitment to unravelling the various mysteries of Renaissance and Baroque visual art. The following is an interview that Hasan of 3PP conducted with the art historian Suzanne Karr Schmidt, who received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2006 and served as the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Schmidt recently co-authored an exhibition catalogue called Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life (Yale University Press, 2011) which examines "how prints were used to create sewing patterns, affixed on walls, glued into albums and books, and in some instances even annotated, handcoloured, or cut apart."

Frontispiece, Hortus Sanitatis, 1491.
On a personal level, I've been fascinated by this topic ever since I examined an exceptional 15th century book (these oldest of all printed works are called incunabula) held by the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin called the Hortus Sanitatis or "Garden of Health." This 1491 bestiary and herbal was printed by none other than the right-hand man of Gutenberg himself and features (in the HRC copy, at least) incredibly beautiful hand-painted prints. The Harvard copy, which also features hand-painted illustrations, is available online here. Just holding such an ancient and rare object in my hands was a remarkable experience.  I noted on the first page of this particular copy that it had been signed by an owner from 1577 named Thomas Lasse, and found that this owner had annotated the work throughout with elaborate quotes and the occasional manicule. As I turned to the section on sea creatures, I was stunned to find that this Elizabethan owner had gone one step further - he had actually replaced a page of the book relating to mer-folk with his own careful drawing of a mermaid! No scan of the HRC edition exists online, but this is the original page that Thomas Lasse replaced with a hand-drawn version:

(As an aside, observant readers might note that the Hortus Sanitatis mermaid appears to be the direct ancestor of the Starbucks logo - which was famously toned down from the slightly risque early modern original in the 1980s and '90s.)

What does all of this have to do with Suzanne Karr Schmidt's book, you might ask? After pondering the case of the missing mer-creatures for an hour or two, it occurred to me that there might be a surprisingly mundane reason why this particular page had been torn from the book at some point prior to 1577: someone wanted to put a mermaid on their wall. Early printed books were very expensive, but prints and woodcuts in the early modern period were not treated with nearly the degree of museum-instilled reverence we give them today. Prints were portable decorations which became part of everyday life: they were frequently torn from books and broadsheets and pasted on walls of taverns, workplaces and homes. This is something you can see quite clearly in details of Dutch paintings -- for instance in the paintings of the domestic life of alchemists I highlighted in an earlier post:

In essence, then, the mermaid from this virtually priceless book may once have been the sixteenth century version of a poster on a teenagers wall.

So with no further adieu, I'm happy to present the following interview between Hasan Niyazi (HN) and Suzanne Karr Schmidt (SKS).

In December 2011, 3PP posted a review of Altered and Adorned - an exhibition catalogue by Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Kimberly Nichols. Inspired by the visually rich and accessible volume, 3PP sought to interview its author and delve a bit more deeply into the fascinating world of Renaissance prints. Suzanne Karr Schmidt is a US based artist and art historian. In 2008 she was appointed as the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) - which resulted in the aforementioned exhibition and catalogue publication distributed by Yale University Press. 3PP's full review can be read here. -HN

HN: What sparked your personal interest in Renaissance prints - both as an artist and as an art historian?

SKS: I've always loved books, with a children's author (my mother, Kathleen Karr) in the family. I was a double major in art history and studio art as an undergraduate at Brown University, which included a fantastic etching class. I initially decided to work on Renaissance art, specifically from Northern Europe, when I went to graduate school at Yale University. I settled on prints instead of paintings or other media when a seminar paper that would become my doctoral dissertation on early modern paper engineering (read: the Renaissance Pop-Up Book) allowed me to spend time going through boxes and boxes of nearly unseen prints throughout Europe. The fact that there are still unknown prints out there was and remains very important. Prints are the last art-historical frontier, where there are discoveries still to be made.

HN: You were appointed Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the AIC in 2008 - what does this role involve?

SKS: This three-year position is one of two at the Art Institute of Chicago generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program (which is also active at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other U.S. art museums) is intended to interest postdoctoral scholars in museum work rather than just university positions. The fellows assume the duties of assistant curators in departments museum-wide, usually complete a culminating project (in my case the Altered and Adorned exhibition and catalogue), and are actively engaged in all aspects of building, exhibiting, publishing, and maintaining the collection. All in all, it's a fantastic opportunity for scholars who prefer hands-on engagement with objects and exhibitions to teaching, and the museums get a recent Ph.D as a fully-funded new member of their staff.

HN: How accessible were Renaissance Prints to different levels of society? Is it mainly through collectors that they have survived?

SKS: I research a wide variety of Renaissance prints--from fine engravings that would certainly have been more expensive and kept relatively safe by collectors--to more ephemeral wall hangings and broadsides sporting texts about current events and cruder woodcuts. The cheaper ones were probably printed in the greatest numbers, but are now the rarest. Many were collected almost accidentally (as bookmarks, for instance), though there have thankfully been early modern collectors of broadsides as well. Their stark attrition initially stemmed from their size and purpose--to be posted where the literate could read the texts for the illiterate (who could also enjoy the pictures). Not every print would have been accessible to every level of society, but there are plenty of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of 'Twelfth Night' parties where farmers or middle-class revelers gather for the Epiphany feast to crown a king with a printed paper hat, and some uncut sheets still survive.

HN: Can you explain anything of the provenance of the mysterious "messenger box" acquired by the AIC - and why it remains so well preserved?

SKS:  The "messenger box" was sold at auction in 2007 from the collection of a prominent Paris bookseller, who had amassed some 25 of these boxes with prints in them over his long career in the book trade. Prior to that owner, very little is known, though art historians begin to discuss these hybrid artworks in the early 20th century. Before then, they were evidently ignored as decorative but not necessarily fine-art objects. They have also sometimes been interpreted as boxes for missals and other religious books, which could explain why a book dealer came across so many.

HN: Do you see parallels with the explosion in the distribution of knowledge via Renaissance prints with our own information age?

SKS: I absolutely do. The change from a manuscript culture to a printed one didn't mean there were suddenly multiple copies of books where there had previously been none, just that the speed of replication was much faster. Literacy eventually improved as well. Even with images, copying was rampant, and printed images could go viral, as in the many, many versions of Dürer's portrait of a rhinoceros he'd never seen, but which became the unshakable image of what such a beast should, theoretically, look like. Not all visual information was necessarily trustworthy, even if it was in print before the days of Photoshop. On a more specific level, printed scientific instruments offered replaceable gadgetry that was relatively cutting edge. (These appear in greater numbers in another exhibition I've worked on recently, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, at Northwestern University's Block Museum, until April 8.) The folding pocket sundials (some with cheap printed veneers) are like an early modern iPhone, and could tell time among other calculating bells and whistles. Some had maps on their back with built-in latitude charts (essential for telling local time).

HN: Artists like Dürer, Raphael and Titian embraced the use of prints - producing unique designs in printed media alone. Can they be viewed as multimedia pioneers - or was their utilisation of printed media typical for artists of the era?

SKS: These artists were absolutely pioneers, with an explicit intention to disseminate their works via prints. Dürer in fact lamented that he had not diversified with prints sooner, as painting was a much more painstaking process with a limited amount of exposure, especially if the commission were for a private owner rather than for display in a church or town hall. Dürer is still considered to have engraved his own intaglio prints (though not cut his own woodblocks) however, which is slightly different than the workshop effect of Raphael and Titian where others translated the designs into print. The Dürer-Marcantonio Raimondi (the main artist who engraved Raphael's work) lawsuit in Venice, in which Raimondi was fined for using Dürer's monogram, but not for copying his images, shows some of the growing pains of the new media.

A foldout print from the Altered and Adorned exhibit: Lucas Kilian's Third Vision (Eve),
anatomical flap print from Mirrors of the Microcosm, 1613

1 comment:

Donna Seger said...

Amazing post! Visually and intellectually inspiring.