Prints Reframed: Curating an Online Exhibition of Works on Paper by Félicien Rops

Hannah Rose Blakeley

Etched metal plates, poster-sized prints colored pink and turquoise, and folders of lithographs spill across a row of tables in the Print Reading Room of Belgium’s Royal Library in Brussels. Andi McKenzie—the Michael C. Carlos Museum works on paper curator and my supervisor—and I are examining materials by Belgian Symbolist Félicien Rops (1833-1898), comparing aspects of design and technique in these works to our digitized photos of those in the Carlos’s collection. Squinting through a magnifying glass at one such photograph, I count the number of lines in a hatched shadow of the print and then count the lines etched into the corresponding area of the copper plate on the table in front of me. I sigh, relieved—they match.

In 2013 Emory’s Carlos Museum received a collection of nearly two hundred works by Félicien Rops. The collection, donated to the Carlos by the Stuart A. Rose Library, consists primarily of two large binders of prints as well as a large hand-colored etching of Rops’s famous Pornocrates (1896). This comprehensive collection represents many facets of Rops’s oeuvre, from prints exploring his working-class sensibilities to satirical journalism and book frontispieces. It provides examples of his consistent experimentation with the printmaking medium and displays his mastery of a multitude of printmaking techniques.

Because works on paper are fragile, most can be exhibited for no more than three months at a time, and the Carlos mounts only two works on paper exhibitions per year. In order to reach a wider audience than sporadic site exhibitions can invite, I am working with the Carlos Museum, the Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory program (SIRE), and Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) to create an online exhibition of the Rops materials, to be published in spring 2016.

To this end, I traveled to France and Belgium for a week in early January on a SIRE Independent Research Grant, accompanied by Ms. McKenzie. We visited a relevant exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the print archives of the Royal Library of Belgium, and the Félicien Rops museum in Namur, where we met with the museum’s curator, Véronique Carpiaux, to discuss Rops’s oeuvre and the Carlos’s collection. I also conducted a video interview with Ms. Carpiaux, which I plan to incorporate in my exhibition, along with a translation of the interview from French to English.

Prior to this trip my research had included catalogues raisonnés (systematic, annotated catalogues of the artist’s work) on loan from the Rose Library and other secondary sources, and in my reading I had encountered discrepancies between texts that offered contradictory plate and print measurements, media classifications, or descriptions of state. Some of these differences may stem from Rops’s experimental approach to printmaking—in which the artist would reproduce an etching or a drawing in a photochemical process such as heliogravure and then retouch the plate with drypoint, etching, or aquatint before reprinting—but in order to make true progress towards resolving these questions, I needed to investigate the metal plates myself and speak with one of the leading Rops scholars in Belgium.

In addition to yielding important information about the technical and artistic processes behind some of the works in the Carlos Museum’s collection, this trip to France and Belgium reaffirmed my love of research and working directly with art objects in archives, libraries, and museums, with the goal of framing these prints and drawings within more broadly accessible terms, contexts, and media. While various aspects of the preparation occasionally felt intimidating, I gained some familiarity with the procedures associated with such projects and began to establish research connections with international institutions. The Rops materials at the Carlos provide an ideal opportunity to explore the ways in which the museum can utilize digital resources to bring its collections and exhibitions beyond Emory University and the Southeast to international, art-loving, and scholarly audiences.

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