At the center of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints,” an 1836 etching sits side-by-side with a flat-panel, high-resolution digital screen. For once, modern technology actually helps look closer at the more antiquated piece, rather than distracting from it: The screen isolates figures and details that might otherwise get lost in the florid details of the print, which tells the story of Sleeping Beauty.
That pairing provides a key to enjoying the exhibit. Each of the 125 etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts in the show is rich in fine detail and hidden elements, which rewards close, lingering examination. “A lot of these prints are like flypaper,” said Cordula Grewe, a fellow in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, during a preview of the exhibition. “At first you just find them pretty and decorative, but the longer you look you get trapped and start to think about God and nature, the cosmos, myths and legends, and you end up never leaving them alone.”
That was what happened to curator John W. Ittmann more than 20 years ago, when he arrived at the museum to help catalogue its collection of French prints. “I was let loose in the boxes,” Ittmann recalled, “and pulled out these boxes of prints in the German aisle by artists I’d never heard of. And I’ve been digging into it ever since.”
It’s not hard to understand what captivated Ittmann as one contemplates some of the gorgeous prints on display, which range from lush landscapes to fairy tale illustrations, intimate family portriats to bold historic scenes. The works are all culled from the museum’s holdings of 8,500 prints from the German Romantic period, the largest in the country. Most come from a collection of 40,000 European prints acquired by John S. Phillips in the mid-19th century.
German artist Ferdinand Olivier represents the days of the week with seven snapshots of 19th-century Salzburg, revealing intimate details of daily life. Johann Gottfried Shadow freezes a pair of dancers in their graceful movements; and Ludwig Grimm provides one of the earliest illustrations for the fairy tale collections of his famed older brothers.
By encouraging such intense contemplation, these prints, Ittmann said, inspire “a kind of poetic revery. Prints, as much as anything, invite the individual to come and sink into this mood of being drawn into a landscape or a legend of the past.”
"The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints"
Through Dec. 29
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th St. and Ben Franklin Pkwy.