Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cromo-Mania! at the Boston Athenaeum

by Drew Martin
The term museum denotes a place or temple dedicated to the muses. In a parallel universe the institution that cradles history, humanity and aesthetics is the Athenaeum, which refers to the temple of Athena, daughter of Zeus and the virgin goddess of reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature.

I counted 27 clubs, cultural centers, museums and performance halls around the world that refer to themselves as an Athenaeum; 16 of which are in the United States. Compare this to ICOM's (International Council of Museums) estimate of 55,000 museums in 202 countries, and the ALA's (American Library Association) estimate of 121,785 libraries in the United States.

Last week I visited The Boston Athenaeum, which was founded in 1807 and is considered the birthplace of public libraries and museums in the United States. The Athenaeum has a wonderful exhibition in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery through mid-January titled: Chromo-Mania! The Art of Chromolithography in Boston, 1840 -1910.

According to the press release, the term chromo-mania "was first coined in the 1860s to ridicule America's insatiable appetite for chromolithographs, a new technology as ubiquitous and popluar as the iPod is today."

This printing printing process requires separate stones for color separation. L. Prang and Company's pictures of ceramics in the exhibition are so crisp and detailed that you would swear you are looking at color photography. A framed K’ang-Hsi Vase Decorated in Colors from 1897 is hung above a massive book that shows the mind-boggling progression of how the image is created with 27 stones.

Chromolithography worked its way into the art world through reproductions and was the modern look of advertisements at the time. What I found most interesting, however, was its importance to a scientific community that valued drawing not only for a way to transcribe the magic of nature but considered it essential to the art of observation. Chromolithography was able to convey the nuances of color found in the natural world at a time when scientists complained about the "great errors" of black and white prints.

Pictured here are plates from William Sharp's lithographic series for John Fiske Allen's tome Victoria Regia: The Great Water Lily of America