The sheer beauty of the work is reason enough to pay a visit to Illusion and Reality: Prints by Jirí Anderle, but the perceptive viewer will find much to think about beyond the skill of this Czechoslovakian artist.
Turning adversity into a virtue is something artists are good at. The adversity of being an artist in a Communist society that forbad direct social criticism steered Anderle into a body of work well suited for comment on the human condition. So prints became Anderle’s dominant form of expression through much of his career.
In Anderle’s hands, the delicate art of dry point, in which a pointed tool cuts into the plate to provide a cavity to catch the ink, produces wonders. He often combines dry point with mezzotint, which roughs up the surface to darken the background. In the 1980s he started using a crayon resist, drawing directly on the plate with a lithographic crayon.
Technical prowess aside, Anderle’s sweeps through art history (these works refer to artists from Durer to Picasso with stops a Rembrandt, Caravaggio and others) deepen his message without impinging on his own originality.
He works in series that he calls cycles — “Vanitas” and “Dialogue with the Great Masters” among them — and indeed these variously related works seem to circle back upon themselves.
With the sort of luck that accompanies the prepared mind, he was given permission at the age of 15 to study at the School of Applied Art and later at the Academy of Fine Arts, both in Prague, leaving the small community in which he had been born in 1936. A further piece of good fortune was the chance to travel, at a time when travel beyond its borders was forbidden to most Czechoslovakian citizens, as a member of the Black Theater of Prague. The exposure to the arts of the rest of Europe, Asia, Australia and America provided the young artist with material he has never stopped processing.
One imagines him running off to museums and galleries whenever opportunity offered. In Edinburgh, for instance, performing in the Art Festival in 1962, he discovered the disparate work of Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon.
Early in Anderle’s career, fortune appeared again in the persons of Anne and Jacques Baruch, whose own Eastern European background prompted them to show in their Chicago gallery contemporary artists working in that region. There are easier ways to find artists than going behind the Iron Curtain to do so, but the Baruchs persisted. They focused on bringing prints back to Chicago, because works on paper are easier to transport than paintings.
The Cincinnati Art Museum’s Print Curator Kristin Spangenberg became aware of the gallery’s unusual holdings and began a relationship that resulted in a substantial gift from the Baruchs that, when added to works purchased, make the museum’s collection of Eastern European printmakers significant.
This beautiful show, from one of the most talented of those artists, is a result. Spangenberg has written the text for the handsome catalogue accompanying the exhibition.
Now, without the strictures of Communist rule, Anderle is concentrating on painting. Seeing this show, one can’t help but think the print world would be poorer if Anderle had not poured his creative energy into it for so many years.
ILLUSION AND REALITY: PRINTS BY JIRI ANDERLE is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 3, 2009. Get museum details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.