Botanicals to Braque

Five Centuries of the Illustrated Book

By Frank Kunkle

Figure with a star
Joan Miró, figure with a star, lithograph from Tristan Tzara, Parler Seul, Paris, 1948–50.
You watch the news during breakfast, fiddle with your smartphone on your commute, and flip open your laptop to surf the seemingly endless pages of the Internet. Modern technology spoils us each day with thousands of crisp images, allowing us to more effectively disseminate knowledge and opinion. But for the 500 or so years leading up to such landmark innovations, printmaking prevailed as the leading provider of ideas and imagination amidst our ever-increasing visual culture.

The present exhibition at the Marvin Samson Center for the History of Pharmacy capitalizes on the significance of printmaking and showcases a historical survey of prints—primarily woodcuts, engravings, and lithographs— from as early as 1480. This gathering of rare books and loose prints created by some of Modernism’s most celebrated artists beckons USciences and the larger Philadelphia community to explore Botanicals to Braque: Five Centuries of the Illustrated Book.

Treasured volumes from the USciences Rare Book Collection are displayed throughout the exhibition. Open pages reveal hand-colored woodcuts from 1550, wood engravings from 1667, a lithograph from 1847, and much more. Comprising only a portion of the exhibit, the books are complemented by an array of more than 60 loose illustrations spanning five centuries. The loose prints bring a new level of sophistication to the museum because they mark the first appearance on campus of original art by acknowledged giants of Modernism such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Chagall, Gauguin, and Miró.

Museum curator MICHAEL BRODY, MA, seized the opportunity to create an exhibition dedicated exclusively to printmaking.

Pharmaceutical Theatre
Pharmaceutical theatre, wood engraving, in Antonio de Sgobbis, Nuovo, et Ubiversale Theatro Farmaceutico: Fonato Sopra le Preparation Farmaceutiche Scritte da’ Medici, Venice, 1667, title page.
“The opportunity to receive prints from several lenders presented itself, and I thought, ‘How can I broaden that and make it more relevant to the ethos of the University?’ And that is, of course, not only pharmacy but generally the health sciences,” Brody explained.

Walking through the museum, you’re immediately struck by 12 elephantine folio botanical prints that once lined the walls of USciences’ 19th-century classrooms. These impressive prints, designed by Arnold and Carolina Dodel-Port in Esslingen, Germany, between 1878 and 1883, have found a new home in the museum. As eye-catching as they are due to their scale, other, smaller prints, whether framed or highlighted in books, offer impressive detail and bold subjects. For example, the oldest hand-colored woodcuts in the exhibition show Achilles learning the harp and Paris killing Achilles with an arrow from Historie von der Zerstörung Trojas (History of the Trojan War), written by Guido de Colonna; these images were completed between 1478 and 1479. Rounding out the selection of antique prints is a collection from the Modernist era that includes several book cover designs from Joan Miró, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso.

Take a moment to put down that smart phone, turn off the TV, and close the laptop as Botanicals to Braque: Five Centuries of the Illustrated Book takes visitors back in time to the earliest days of illustrated book printing.

 

 






Aloe arborescens
Aloe arborescens (tree aloe), lithograph, in Joseph Carson, Illustrations of Medical Botany: Consisting of Coloured Figures of the Plants … , Philadelphia, 1847, pl. XCI.
Human skull
Human skull, wood engraving, in Henry H. Smith, M.D., Anatomical Atlas, Illustrative of the Structure of the Human Body, Philadelphia, 1859, frontispiece.

 

“The opportunity to receive prints from several lenders presented itself, and I thought, ‘How can I broaden that and make it more relevant to the ethos of the University?’”

- Museum curator MICHAEL BRODY
Botanicals to Braque
Curator Michael Brody with USciences students at the exhibition.
Click here to learn more about the current exhibit, which runs through May 31, 2013.
 


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