Blue Greenberg: Visual history in Ackland print exhibits

Feb. 13, 2014 @ 01:09 PM

“The New Found Land: Engravings by Theodor De Bry from the collection of Michael N. Joyner;” “America Seen: The Hunter and Cathy Allen Collection of Social Realist Prints,” Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, through April 13.
Museum hours are Wednesday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.,
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
For information, call 919-966-5736 or visit www.ackland.org.


Queen Elizabeth I sent a team of ships with soldiers, botanists, mathematicians, artists and historians to stake Britain’s claim into what was being called the New World. “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia” by Thomas Harriot with engravings by Theodor de Bry of John White’s watercolors was published in 1590. It was a result of a 1588 expedition and the first book about North America written by someone who had been there. 
Fewer than 400 years later, prints depicting this new world recorded a place with buildings as tall as mountains, machines which could transport people great distances and wires that made it possible to heat and light your house and speak to someone hundreds of miles away. If dreamed of at all, such changes from the forest primeval to megalopolis should have taken eons to accomplish; instead it was fewer than 400 years.
The two collections exhibited side-by-side are the gifts of patrons of the Ackland, Hunter and Cathy Allen and Michael N. Joyner. They are vintage prints with historic subject matter and have enriched the museum’s pre-eminent collection of works on paper.
There were 17 editions in all of the “New Found Land” which were published in French, English, Latin and German. It became the bible of information for those looking to conquer new worlds, and the message of a highly fertile land with welcoming natives interested investors as well as settlers. 
The collection is of special interest to scholars because it includes images from different editions. For example, there are several title pages in different languages which allow wonderful comparisons. The general viewer, however, will probably find the pictures of the natives and the way they lived the most fascinating. A particularly strong engraving is of a chief with an extremely muscular physique standing proudly, holding his bow in one hand and arrow in the other; he is covered at mid-section with a fringed loin cloth and several strands of beads hang from his neck. As I looked at this formidable man I wondered what the people of Europe thought. 
Among the other images are the wife of a chief; an “Indian Woman and Young Girl,” a woman carrying her baby on her back, men building a boat, men fishing, an Indian village, even a man and woman sitting together and eating. There are also several engravings of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh, three versions of early maps of Florida and Virginia and a few artifacts borrowed from the North Carolina Archaeological Collection, Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC, which date from 800-1200 CE. These pictures are only a small sample of what was in “New Found Land” but they represent one collector’s passion and are now a part of the Ackland’s holdings.
The other series is about early 20th century America and are black and white prints, produced by many different artists during the Great Depression with the help of a federal government art project (Works Progress Administration) and a commercial art organization, Associated American Artists (AAA). The project hired painters who made easel paintings and prints and murals for public buildings, graphic artists who were sent across the country making maps, and photographers to document rural poverty. The AAA gave a number of artists, including such famous ones as Thomas Hart Benton, contracts to make prints, which would be sold inexpensively. The period between the 1930s and the 1940s was a golden age of printmaking in America and the two organizations supported a large number of artists and prints by some of the nation’s most distinguished artists that were made available to the public at modest prices. The artists created realistic views of life in the United States in its time, and we see scenes of American life from the farm to the city. There are country churches and New York’s Bowery, there is a rural train station and a view of the city from New York’s Second Avenue “El,” and there are Missouri wheat farmers and New York subway riders.
The exhibition includes a lot of images with wall texts at the side; give the show your time because these pictures are full of history. The scenes are ones we call the “good old days”: They represent the good and not so good times in America and they feel familiar.  One of those is Stevan Dohanos’ “Connecticut Yankee,” 1935, a slender man who dominates the image and represents the farmers in his state.  Mabel Dwight’s “Railway Station,” 1939, swaying beneath a fierce storm, and J.A. Fisher’s “Street Car in Old New Orleans,” 1923-48, are also pictures of another time, which we like to remember. 
A poignant scene is Gan Kolski’s “Steel and Milk,” ca.1930. Here a horse pulling its load of milk walks in the shadows of towering skyscrapers. And then there are the people who ride the subway. No one who paints New York can resist pictures of the subway and its riders; there are several in the show and each is a picture of how people in a big city manage their daily travel; it is a life those of us who live in small towns cannot even imagine.
These two collections are visual history lessons and offer a wonderful afternoon of fun in learning. It is the kind of exhibition the entire family can enjoy and is exactly what art museums are all about.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.