Portraits of people in elaborate costume. Studies of facial features, decorative arts and insect specimens. Reproductions of paintings. Panoramic scenes of European towns and architectural renderings. Etchings of historical events, including the Great Fire of London in 1666.
For the prolific Wenceslaus Hollar, a nobleman from Prague who lived during the 17th century, his subject matter was eclectic. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presents more than 200 of his works on paper in "Hollar's Encyclopedic Eye: Prints from the Frank Raysor Collection."
In the current climate of blockbuster art exhibitions, there is a tendency for museums to err on the side of entertainment and spectacle. Those, however, are secondary in this exhibition of the fifth largest collection of Hollar's work. Instead, the exhibition emphasizes medium, visual literacy, scholarship and Hollar's expertise.
"Really no one nowadays recognizes [Hollar's] name. Hollar is usually left out of baroque survey texts. Rembrandt is the one who is touted as the consummate baroque printmaker," points out Colleen Yarger, curatorial assistant for European art and the Mellon Collections and interim head of European art. Yarger co-organized the exhibition — her curatorial debut since she was hired full time in 2017 — with Mitchell Merling, the former Paul Mellon curator and head of the European art department, who officially left the museum in January.
The rooms in the exhibition are dim, but that's necessary to maintain the baroque-era prints, which will rest in storage for two years after they come down. In comparison to Howardena Pindell's large paintings that hung earlier in the Evans Court, the etchings are small but rich with detail. Finally, the exhibition design is muted but thoughtful with wall treatments featuring enlargements of Hollar's etchings, including a magnified 3-inch-tall etching depicting the burning of St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1666.
The exhibition is organized chronologically around four periods of Hollar's life: his early life while he lived across central Europe; work produced in England where Hollar worked with Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel; Hollar's most notable works made in Antwerp; and works made later in life after the artist returned to England.
Yarger explains that during Hollar's lifetime, he wasn't thought of as an artist but as a great hard worker.
"Those were the terms that people used in glowing terms with Hollar," she says. "He was a consummate professional and a gentleman."
Antony Griffith, the former keeper of the department of prints and drawings at the British Museum, has theorized that because Hollar was a gentleman—in his self-portrait, Hollar is pictured with his family's coat of arms—the artist couldn't take on apprentices or journeymen because it would economically reduce Hollar to a craftsman. Therefore, Hollar likely worked by himself rather than in a workshop.
Additionally, while Hollar was commissioned to make the etchings on copper plates for the prints and probably pulled single proofs, it was the publisher who made the impressions or the prints on paper that circulated as loose etchings and bound books or portfolios.
However, the overarching framework for the exhibition is most intriguing for close looking. "In order to get the most of the exhibition, you have to stop, take a minute and look more closely at the works," Yarger says.
John Aubrey, the artist's biographer, wrote: "His worke is not be judged without a magnifying-glass." These words are affixed to the wall of the exhibition over a rack of hand-held magnifying glasses with an invitation for guests to take one to view Hollar's prints.
This eye-opening experience offers an entirely unanticipated, while still intimate, encounter with the etchings. The most rewarding are the panoramic plates: "The Long View of Prague" (1649) or "Greenwich" (1637). In each, Hollar captures the birds-eye scenic view alongside the minutia of individual buildings, streets and landmarks.
"He did know these towns so well that a woman here from Strasburg Germany, who was born there and went to school right next to the church that Hollar depicted in the print of Strasburg, she didn't even have to read the wall labels," Yarger says. "She just was like 'Oh my goodness, I walked by that every weekday as a child.'"
"Hollar's Encyclopedic Eye: Prints from the Frank Raysor Collection" is on view through May 5. For information, see VMFA.museum.