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Each year the Philadelphia Museum of Art adds approximately 250 objects to its extensive collection of over 150,000 works of art on paper. A choice selection of over 80 prints and drawings acquired between 2000 and 2005 will be on view in the exhibition Recent Acquisitions: Prints and Drawings from Dürer to Doig, in the Museum’s Berman & Stieglitz Galleries from March 11–May 21, 2006. More than 50 of these works of art will be on view for the first time.
Installed chronologically, ranging from prints by the fifteenth-century master Albrecht Dürer to work by contemporary artists such as Peter Doig, the exhibition includes the major additions made to some of the strongest areas of the collection, while also highlighting some new fields of focus. Among the foremost newcomers to the Museum’s holdings of more than 60,000 old master prints is Israhel van Meckenem’s rare engraved Self-Portrait with his Wife, Ida, (c. 1490), the first known self-portrait by a printmaker, and a superb impression of Rembrandt van Rijn’s Three Crosses. Other works on view in the exhibition spotlight existing strengths in the collection, in particular German Romantic prints, modern European and American drawings with additions by Carlo Carrà, Joseph Stella, and Henri Matisse, and contemporary prints and drawings represented by artists such as Ellen Gallagher, Julie Mehretu, Fang Lijun, Thomas Chimes, and Robert Moskowitz.
“This exhibition of prints and drawings was selected not only to display the range and quality of the Museum’s most recent holdings, but also to acquaint the public with some of the judgments that motivate the acquisition of works of art for such a large and wide-ranging collection,” said Innis Howe Shoemaker, the Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. “Even within such an extensive collection, certain important areas of strength exist, and curators strive to build them by seeking works of art that will complement, improve, stand out, or simply add some odd and wonderful object that will capture the interest of viewers.”
The Museum is fortunate to possess the largest collection of German Romantic prints outside of Europe, thanks to the Muriel and Philip Berman Gift of 1985. One new addition to this exceptional trove is Philipp Otto Runge’s The Four Times of Day, a rare and long sought-after set of etchings that instantly became one of the treasures of that outstanding part of the collection. Also of note, the enchanting etching, The Artist and His Family, by Eugen Napoleon Neureuther, is an immensely compelling print by a lesser-known talent that highlights some of the more intimate aspect of German Romanticism.
During the 1990s the Museum began to form a collection of work by self-taught artists, with the intention of being able to display it in the context of its encyclopedic collections of painting, drawing, sculpture, and decorative arts, as opposed to showing it as an isolated artistic phenomenon. The collection is beginning to be characterized by in-depth representations of certain figures, such as Joseph Yoakum, Bill Traylor, and Justin McCarthy. Obsessed by movie stars, sports events, high fashion, and historical scenes, McCarthy’s work is characterized by inventive compositions in brilliant colors. Yoakum was born in Missouri and traveled extensively in his youth. In his seventies he began to produce the ballpoint pen and colored pencil drawings for which he is known, in which the world is flattened out almost in the manner of a Persian miniature. No one knows whether his carefully labeled drawings were done from memory, reproductions, or the imagination.
Aaron Douglas’s rare woodcut portrait of poet Langston Hughes, Betye Saar’s penetrating print Passé Blanc (a Creole term for “passing for white”), and an early self-portrait drawing by John Woodrow Wilson are significant examples of prints and drawings that enhance the Museum’s collection of art by African Americans, a growing area of the collection that is guided by the enthusiasm of the Museum’s African American Collections Committee.
A particularly fascinating work acquired in 2004 is Sonia Delaunay’s beautiful, hand-colored illustration of Blaise Cendrars’ poetry. Entitled La Prose du Transsibérien (1913), it is the most recent major addition to the collection of modern European artist’s books. Known as “the first Simultaneous book,” it displays the ingenious conjoining of the typographic imagery of Cendrars’s long poem about a train journey from Moscow to Nikolskoye on the Sea of Japan with Delaunay’s brilliantly-colored arcs, spirals, and arabesques that proceed from the top to the bottom (the beginning to the end) of the poem. Unfolding together, both literally and figuratively, the rhythmic abstract colors and shifts in typography become as one with the rhythms and imagery of the free verse.
Housing some 150,000 works of art, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is nationally recognized for the breadth and depth of its collections as well as the flair and scholarship of its exhibitions. The Department presents rotating installations of its vast holdings in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries and the Julien Levy Gallery on the Museum’s ground floor and the Eglin Gallery on the first floor. Individual works are also on view in the Museum’s collection galleries.