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Delacroix to Degas

at Hilles

By Cynthia Saltzman

IMAGES FROM a Gothic novel haunt the second floor of Hilles Library in a strange set of 19th century prints. They recall illustrations in your grandmother's nostrildusting edition of Wuthering Heights where inked lines wove landscapes of odd faces an cloudy moors. Among the prints in Delacroix to Degas: Printmakers Contemporary to Daumier (a little too long and alliterative for the size of the show), the weird, excessively detailed scenes are the most fun. You keep finding an unexpected figure under a tree or a crow in the sky disguised in the dark linear pattern. These ambiguous details emerging from the shadows tantalize they eye and draw the viewer into the scene for a close look.

Exploiting this murky and suggestive mood of prints, many artists chose bizarre subjects--tigers, vagabonds, and birds of prey--to dance among the shadows of their backgrounds. Since prints are designed to be reproduced and sold the artists tempted the pre-photographic public with the sentimental or the grotesque. In a lithopraph by Gelestin Nateuil, titled "Daughters of the Devil," three bonnetted damsels appear to be having a typical Jane Austen chat except that a gargoyle, silhouetted agaisnt a full moon, hovers behind a tree.

The Daumier cartoons have a lighter touch: a skinny, knobby-nosed "Narcissus" stares at a fat face in the water; but they also are slightly too perverse to seem funny. Delacroix, standing at the other end of the title of the exhibition, asserts a more serious tone and representational image. His etching of a lion devouring a horse is memorable for the energy of the lines and the laser stare of the lion.

Not all the subjects are so gruesome, but the mood of the medium pervades even prints of an ordinary city street. The force of black line and the amount of detail packed into small rectangle zaps the prints with intensity. Contemporary colorists like Morris Louis could not exist in this world of black and brown. In an extreme example, "Effet de Nuit," cross-hatched lines form a network of fog and on a spot of page glows on he horizon. Maniacal rendering of cracks in a stone wall with pinpoint line adds to the peculiarity of the medium.

Since the medium itself is dated, the queer old-fashioned visions possessed by some of the lesser artists seem appropriate--the death of Desdemona or a gargoyle on Notre Dame. These images let the eye explore fantasies in ink that come from an era very distant from our own when art is haunted predominantly by Campbell's Soup.

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