The exhibition Masters of the Modern showcases a selection of pieces donated by Madeleine P. and Harvey R. Plonsker of the Class of 1961 to the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). In its final month of display since its opening in June, it is an expansive exhibit that contains 72 pieces and features artists ranging from Picasso to Francisco Jose de Goya to Max Beckmann. The Plonskers’ donation greatly enhances WCMA’s collection of European modernist prints, especially those of the German Expressionists; though the pieces selected for exhibition cover a broad range of techniques, styles and artists, the German Expressionists receive the most emphasis. The media used include pencil and dry-point drawings, woodcuts, lithographs and intaglio prints and etchings.
The pieces are predominantly black and white, and each artist utilizes the print medium in a variety of ways. The softer drawing-like quality of the lithographs provides a sharp contrast to the fine lines of the etchings and the bold shapes produced by the woodcuts.
The most traditional prints were created by Goya approximately a century before the majority of the other work in the exhibition. The inclusion of Goya’s Los Caprichos, completed at the end of the 18th century, with works of the early 20th century emphasizes the theme of emotion connecting all of the pieces. The prints of Los Caprichos are on display, centered in gilded frames and aligned on the wall. The etchings are beautifully and meticulously detailed, with hundreds of small directional strokes giving rise to huddled human figures. The humans featured in the pictures are drawn delicately, but with exaggerated facial expressions, and are engaged in bizarre activities. Within these prints is a sense of disturbia and fear. Although the composition of his pieces is similar to more traditional western scenes, he does not idealize the figures to make them beautiful. Rather, he distorts their features so that they appear ridiculous or grotesque. Goya created these works to critique specific aspects of Spanish culture of his time. One Hunting for Teeth shows a woman reprehensibly stretching forth her arm to pull the teeth from a dead hanged man, believing the common superstition that teeth of a hanged man contain power.
The emphasis of emotive over representational carries over to the Expressionist works. These prints are distilled versions emphasizing feelings and moods rather than accurate representation. The reclining nudes in Expressionist prints are not in traditional poses, and their bodies are not idealized. . Rather the artists depict the nudes more casually, with women sprawled out on sofas or squatting by a riverbank or reaching for their towels. The bodies are often anatomically incorrect and intentionally simplistic and distorted. In Ernst Ludwin Kirchner’s print Lungerndes Nackts Madchen auf Diwan (Reclining Girl on a Sofa), the focus is redirected toward the facial expression. Her relaxed countenance, as shown by the continuous curve, makes her appear languid and loose.
The prints by Emil Nolde are highly expressive as well. In the woodcut Of Dusterer Mannerkpft (Head of a Somber man), a self-portrait, Nolde’s face is almost entirely obscured by the darkness. We catch glimpses of his face through the odd white shapes that stand in sharp contrast to the bold black filling the majority of the print. His lithograph Grotesque is an asymmetrical piece with one figure aggressively looming over another as they argue. Although the faces are discernible, the other body parts of the figures are ambiguous, and the viewer must decide whether the shapes and smudges are parts of a beard, or a chin, or a gesturing hand. Instead of emphasizing the forms of the figures, he emphasizes their relation to each other.
Masters of the Modern is an exhibit covering an expansive amount of work by many different artists. Although the styles in which the prints are executed vary greatly, the pieces are designed to produce an emotive response in the viewer, and it is this emotional element of modernism that becomes the connecting thread through the many varied pieces in the exhibit. The exhibit will leave WCMA on Oct. 2.