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ART REVIEW

‘Hue & Cry’ at the Clark explores controversy of color printmaking in 19th-century France

The museum is well-suited to tell this story of riches to rags, running parallel to the French Revolution.

Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940), "Landscapes and Interiors: Through the Fields, 1899." Lithograph on paper.Clark Art Institute

WILLIAMSTOWN — “Hue & Cry: French Printmaking and the Debate Over Colors,” an expansive new exhibition at the Clark Art Institute, has a teacherly tone and a sumptuous payoff. I wondered, walking through it recently, if its protracted exposition might be compressed; the best, at last, is a mini-supernova about the medium as a space for creative imagination all on its own.

But I don’t want to cast that final space as the destination and all else just the path. There are plenty of rewarding whistlestops along the way, so stick with me.

The story of color printmaking in France — one the Clark, with its wealth of holdings in that world spanning some three centuries, is perfectly suited to tell — is one of riches to rags, running alongside the gross indulgences of the French aristocracy and the French Revolution, which ended in 1799. Printmaking had been an established artistic medium since the Renaissance when, in 1760, a process known as aquatint made color printing possible, if not exactly affordable. An intaglio print had to be run through a press multiple times, once for each color; so much as a millimeter’s misplacement on any pass would ruin it, making the process laborious, error-prone, and wildly expensive.

Philibert Louis Debucourt), "The Climb, or Morning Farewell (L'escalade ou les adieux du matin)," 1787, color intaglio on paper. Clark Art Institute

The French aristocracy, without much care for the cost of anything, loved the lush scenes color intaglio could produce; it thrived among the elite as a bawdy amusement with licentious or frivolous scenes overshadowing the medium’s technological achievement. “Hue & Cry” has a lovely selection of works along these lines: Philibert Louis Debucourt’s “The Climb, or Morning Farewell,” 1787, in which a loosely clothed young couple embrace, their various garments strewn nearby more than suggesting the previous night’s entanglement; or Jean-Francois Janinet’s “Nina, ou La folle par amour,” also 1787, which captures the moment before the heroine of a popular play is driven mad upon learning of her lover’s murder with a stilted gesture of grief. They’re technical marvels, certainly, but deeply cloying, made to please an audience of the idly rich and easily bored.

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Color printing became intrinsically tied to the aristocracy’s legendary extravagance, so when heads rolled in 1799, it all but vanished from French culture; not only was it too expensive for a new world order built on egalité, the medium was a gaudy emblem of banished excess. It would take the dawn of the modern era for color prints to re-enter the French artistic lexicon, uneasily. The Paris Salon, the pinnacle of the French academy, didn’t allow them to be shown in its halls until 1899. In the 1850s, color woodblock prints from a Japan newly open to trade with the west rekindled an interest in the long-lost medium. (Claude Monet was famously inspired by their composition, color, and raggedly precise depictions of nature.)

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Camille Pissarro, "Peasant Women Weeding the Grass," c. 1894, Etching printed in blue, red, yellow, and black on cream laid paper.Clark Art Institute

Artists began to embrace color printing again, warily, as an experimental medium; a selection of three small prints by Camille Pissarro, from 1894 and 1901, smudgily capturing rural scenes like those he favored in his paintings, have the visual effect of thinking out loud. Nearby, Mary Cassatt’s crisp “Mother’s Kiss,” 1891, of a pale infant lolling in his mother’s lap against a soft, inky-green backdrop, mimics the Japanese ukiyo-e prints she had seen at the École des Beaux-Arts exhibition the year before and adored: “You couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful,” she wrote.

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One of the Pissarro prints here is a lithograph, presaging the revolution to come: In the next room, an array of prints by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec surround you like the old friends they are: bonafide mass-market art, perhaps the first the world had known. This was both blessing and curse; as a medium for mass-produced posters pinned all over Paris, lithographs had a trashy sheen of disposability. The technique had been invented more than a century earlier as an inexpensive way to mass produce sheet music and printed advertisements, and it seemed cheap and easy next to the slow, deliberate process of art-making that intaglio still embraced.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, "The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge," 1892. Lithograph printed in green, gray, blue, orange red, yellow, and black on cream laid paper.Clark Art Institute

But lithography had an immediacy that other forms had lacked, and it dovetailed perfectly into the accelerating pace of life in the modern era. Toulouse-Lautrec’s work blurred lines between commercial and artistic purpose; it abandoned pastoral romanticism for the frenetic landscape of a burgeoning cosmopolitan scene. Toulouse-Lautrec torqued his medium to his message, abandoning convention to create his own: The very famous “Balcony with a Gilded Grotesque Mask,” 1894, is framed almost as if lying down, rendered loose and fluid, dissembling into a pinky mist from the balcony’s rim to the bottom of the frame; “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge,” 1892, is a frank scene of real life, with a lecherous fop soliciting courtesans at Toulouse-Lautrec’s favored haunt. Technical marvel serves artistic intent: The artist’s process made a for a lively scene of vibrant color with the titular figure at its heart a patch of lifeless gray.

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Printmaking presented a tantalizing commercial opportunity for dealers, giving them means to sell not just singular paintings but open-ended editions, and many pressed their artists to embrace it. Unsurprisingly, many did not. A pair of prints here by Paul Cèzanne convey the artist’s ambivalence; his signature bathers have a chilly lifelessness. But other artists reaped a reward of artistic epiphany.

Pierre Bonnard, "Some Aspects of Life in Paris, 7: The Square in the Evening (Quelques aspects de la vie parisienne: Place le soir)," c. 1898. Lithograph in yellow, red, violet, greenish gray on wove paper.Clark Art Institute

That’s surely the case in “Hue & Cry’s” grand finale, where the 1899 print portfolios of four Nabi artists cover deep blue walls in spare and resplendent glory. The portfolios were initiated by their dealers, hungry for product. But for the artists themselves, printmaking was no chore. It was kindling to the imagination, and a new world to explore.

By 1899, lithography was capable of an entire spectrum of color, but in an act of supreme artistic discipline, Pierre Bonnard limited himself to just five. Bonnard had made lithographs before — of gardens and bucolic ponds, as well as interior scenes — but “Some Aspects of Parisian Life,” his 1899 portfolio, is full of dun and dusky scenes, the rhythm and flow of the modern city captured in loose, inky dark washes. They’re so thoroughly modern and forward-looking that some, like “Place le Soir,” teeter on the edge of abstraction. They’re completely apart from Maurice Denis, whose portfolio is dreamlike and gauzy with soft color and poetry. (“She Was More Beautiful Than Dreams” is the title of one, with his wife in soft focus holding a bouquet of roses.)

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Édouard Vuillard, "Landscapes and Interiors: The Avenue," 1899. Lithograph on paper.Clark Art Institute

Ker-Xavier Roussel used the medium’s offset printing to create spare dreamscapes of coalescent flecks of color. With its limited palette and soft contours, his portfolio here feels almost like he’s crafted a new form of making art altogether. See: “Nymphs (Femmes de la Campagne),” a swatch of murky blue seething with ghostly figures in its depths.

Roussel saw in printmaking not limitation but possibility, a vision felt most deeply here by Édouard Vuillard. Rounding out the foursome, Vuillard’s portfolio is a thought experiment on paper; its subject is printmaking itself. “Through the Fields,” just three colors, is radiant and sparse, a beacon of less-is-more; “The Avenue,” a perspectival street study with half the paper all but bare, is a thrilling experiment in the use of negative space, a clairvoyant window into the future of his field. Vuillard and his peers found something intuitively liberating in printmaking’s limitations that so many had found confining. In their hands, discipline set them free.

HUE & CRY: French Printmaking and the Debate Over Color

Through March 6, 2022, the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.