Published May 5, 2004 in South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The Lowe Art Museum of the University of Miami remains true to its mission as a teaching facility with “Reason and Fantasy in an Age of Enlightenment.” This small but extremely intelligent and enlightening exhibition consists of more than 70 objects — most of them prints but also about a dozen illustrated books — executed in the 18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment. The show is drawn from the collection of its organizer, the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill.
In both Europe and America, reason held sway in the 1700s; knowledge and rational thought were intended to replace ignorance and superstition. As the exhibition clearly demonstrates, however, the seemingly contradictory elements of imagination and fantasy continued to play an important role.
The opposing poles of reason and fantasy are clearly manifested in the contrast between two mid-century etchings by Italian artists: Canaletto’s light-filled, carefully observed A Village on a River, which depicts village architecture and everyday life, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s dark and forbidding work from his Invented Prisons series in which massive architecture, instruments of torture and ramps leading nowhere conjure a nightmarish scene.
Yet another image of haunted slumber is Spanish artist Goya’s famous The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), in which a gentleman sleeps with his head resting upon a table while an ominous gathering of nighttime creatures — owls, bats and a wide-eyed cat — converge upon him from behind. Here, the exhibition’s contrasting themes are united: The rational, thinking man’s head is filled with fantasy.
It was also, occasionally, filled with erotic thoughts, as seen in British artist William Hogarth’s narrative cycle, A Harlot’s Progress (1732). In a series of six prints, Hogarth tells the story of the decline of Moll, a young woman who arrives in London from the country, presumably to find honest work. Instead, she becomes, in rapid succession, mistress to a wealthy man, a harlot, a convict, a syphilitic and a corpse. While pretending to take a moral stand, Hogarth presents titillating and satire-filled images.
Any number of prints in the exhibition address themselves to political concerns of the day, including the French Revolution and the evils of slavery. The various roles played by women in the society of the time are also examined. A few marvelous prints are devoted to Shakespeare, one to a conception of him as a kind of child god and another to an 18th century staging of King Lear (after a painting by American artist Benjamin West).
As a whole, the exhibition has something to teach and interest every one of us, whether our concerns reside in art and art history, fashion design, architecture, history, literature, theater, feminism and more. Though a modest show, it packs a substantial punch.
If you go, be sure to save time to check out the impressive “Annual Juried Student Art Show” concurrently on view at the Lowe. It consists of work in a wide range of media — painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, printmaking, graphic design, ceramics and video — by University of Miami students in both the undergraduate and master’s degree programs in art and art history.
This year’s exhibition was judged by Ken Rollins, executive director of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, who selected work with a keen eye.