‘"Heroines, Harlots, and Hussies: Old Testament Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints"’

Local Arts Reviews

"500 Years of Prints and Drawings"

Blanton Museum of Art, through July 18

Like so many other literature lovers, I'm a great fan of the Old Testament. It revolves around perhaps the most complicated character in the history of the written word: a hot-and-cold Creator whose love for His favorite children is second only to the abuse He heaps upon His black sheep. Such dysfunctional parenting naturally gives rise to all kinds of bad behavior in the kids and makes the Bible a supremely juicy read, with everything from sex to violence to selflessness and heroism between its covers.

A portion of the Blanton's current prints and drawings exhibition focuses on Renaissance depictions of women from the Old Testament – and what a gang they are. Women often serve as pivotal forces for good in the Book, but many – think Eve, Delilah, Lot's daughters, Potiphar's wife – are serious peddlers of sin. The pieces in "Heroines, Harlots, and Hussies: Old Testament Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints" illuminate the way women shape biblical history, even though it's often through their misbehavior. The fun of this exhibit is surveying the differences in the artists' depictions of the same beloved stories.

The craft of these engravings is staggering: The artists made every tiny crosshatch and curlicue by gouging metal plates with small wedge-shaped tools. As in pen-and-ink drawings, the pieces are completely comprised of lines, which form both the über-defined figures of the engravings and the layered shading and background elements that give many of these pieces their force.

And forceful they are, ranging from lush to downright disturbing. Italian Giulio Bonasone's series depicting the Adam and Eve story curls the toes with its detail, from the teeming throng of freshly minted animals lounging around in Eden, to a ghostlike God's dim smile as Eve emerges from Adam's side. To Italian Bonasone, Eve is hulking and bounteous, almost dwarfing her Father at birth, as is the Susannah of fellow Italian Annibale Carracci, who coyly looks over her shoulder at a pair of distressed Elders. Not so with Dutch Maerten van Heemskerck's Susannah (and many of the other women drawn by the Dutch); her thinner, more refined frame is diminutive, flanked by the larger figures of the Elders.

The most disturbing and explicit engravings are those of the seduction of Lot by his daughters. Claude Mellan (French) shows the daughters as coquettes in modern dress. Lot is a clear victim of betrayal here, looking heavenward as his daughters pour the wine. Lucas van Leyden depicts an amorous Lot with his hand halfway up one slyly smiling daughter's thigh, a smoldering Sodom visible in the background. But in Agostino Carracci's piece, the scene is even more explicit. One daughter is seen wiping herself post-coitally, while the other leans away from her insistent, lecherous father. On her face is a faint look of terror. Who is the seducer here? Who is the seduced?

Other drawings and etchings are on display, including a series of photo-realistic court portraits that capture the look of the Renaissance ruling class. Framed in ovals marked by their titles and coats of arms, the faces of these elite are stunning in their realism, and offer an insight into another facet of Renaissance life. But the show is worth seeing if only for the Old Testament etchings. They succeed in offering an unflinching look at human nature in some of its most complicit, most sensual, and most fascinating moments.

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500 Years of Prints and Drawings, Heroines, Harlots, and Hussies: Old Testament Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints, Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Giulio Bonasone, Annibale Carracci, Maarten Van Heemskerck, Claude Mellan, Agostino Carracci

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