OBERLIN, Ohio – It’s hard to believe that Oberlin College once thought about selling artworks from its Allen Memorial Art Museum to pay for general operating expenses.
But it did. In a 1995 interview, then-college president Nancy Dye said she had withdrawn her name from consideration a year earlier to succeed the previous president, Frederick Starr, after learning that the college was thinking of using the collection like an ATM.
Then the college changed its position, and Dye became president.
"I could not preside over a major de-accessioning of a world-class collection," she said.
Three presidents and several museum directors later, the Allen is looking terrific in latter half of the centennial year that began last June when staffers celebrated by cutting a birthday cake on the front lawn.
The sandstone and bluestone facades of the Allen’s beautiful building, a neo-Renaissance palazzo designed by Cass Gilbert, were crumbling by the end of the Starr years. Now, after more than $13 million in renovations over the past two decades, the place sparkles.
More to the point, the Allen, which has free admission, like the Cleveland Museum of Art, is packed with art worth seeing. That’s especially true now with shows on view that celebrate 100 years of smart, innovative and sometimes very lucky collecting.
The star attraction is an exhibition on roughly 60 Rembrandt etchings that places examples from the museum’s collection amid prints from other academic collections of across the U.S.
One impetus for the show is Cornell University’s research into the watermarks in paper used by Rembrandt to make the etchings.
Frontiers of research
Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, headed by Stephanie Wiles, a former director of the Allen, collaborated with the Oberlin museum, now led by Andria Derstine, to explore this esoteric-sounding but fascinating subject.
An essay by Wiles and Derstine in the show’s catalog explains how the Morgan Library & Museum sent its Rembrandt etchings to the Allen during World War II for safekeeping, providing part of the historial impetus for the show.
As for the watermarks, an excellent video presentation mounted at the show’s entry shows how paper sheets were made in Rembrandt’s day with wire-formed watermarks that branded each sheet of paper with its maker’s monogram.
Today, those marks can be used to understand Rembrandt’s technical processes, including how he used different kinds of papers to achieve distinct visual effects.
Organized at the Allen by Andaleeb Banta, the museum’s curator of European and American art, the show calls attention to Rembrandt’s passion for making multiple versions, or "states" of his etchings by re-etching them to adjust narrative details or to change the light, mood and atmosphere.
The show includes, for example, four versions of Rembrandt’s 1651 portrait of the printseller Clement de Jonghe that come from Cornell, the Allen, and the Morgan.
One of the Morgan versions is printed on amber-toned Japanese paper that produced lighter shadows on de Jonghe’s face than a second and more heavily inked version, also from the Morgan, printed on a different, brighter sheet of paper that produces sharper contrasts and more dramatic shadows.
Even more pronounced is the difference between two states of Rembrandt’s 1651 etching "Christ Presented to the People."
The earlier version, from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, depicts a motley crowd gathered below the platform on which Pontius Pilate parades Christ for judgment.
In the second version, from Yale University, Rembrandt replaced the central portion of the crowd with a pair of arches framing what appears to be a menacing pit into which prisoners could be thrown.
As Banta pointed out in an interview, by eliminating the intervening crowd in the second version, Rembrandt places the viewer directly in the uncomfortable position of judging Christ.
By enabling such comparisons, the Allen encourages the kind of close looking that isn’t possible with books or digital images. It’s one reason why art museums exist.
The Rembrandt show also produces unexpected resonances with two adjacent exhibitions.
Resonating with Rembrandt
The multiple de Jonghe portraits echo Andy Warhol’s Pop Art repetition in portraits of the mourning Jackie Kennedy, or stacks of faux Brillo boxes. Examples of Warhol’s work are on view in another centennial exhibit on view at the Allen, which salutes contributions made to the institution by former Oberlin art historian Ellen Johnson.
Johnson, who taught at Oberlin from 1939 to 1977, championed the cause of modern and contemporary art, urging the college to acquire important works by artists ranging from Cezanne and Picasso to Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Josef Beuys. She also donated works from her own collection.
One painting acquired at Johnson’s urging is Barnett Newman’s "Onement IV," 1949, in which a single white stripe or "zip" in the artist’s word, flashes like lightning down the middle of an otherwise black-painted canvas.
Wonder and awe
Intended to elicit awe and a sense of the sublime, Newman’s painting echoes the terror and wonder at the power of God evoked in Rembrandt’s 1653 etching, "Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: ‘The Three Crosses,’ " on view just steps away.
The repeated vertical parallel lines Rembrandt used to convey the celestial light create an effect that’s otherworldly and abstract, and which seems to anticipate the radical reduction in Newman’s "Onement," centuries later.
Sandwiched between the Rembrandt and Ellen Johnson shows is a third exhibition that focuses on two dozen artworks donated to the museum in the 1950s and ’60s by Joseph and Enid Bissett, co-founder of the Maidenform underwear company.
Persuaded by their nephew, J.R. Judson, a 1948 Oberlin graduate, the Bissetts donated important works by Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and the French "Art Brut" painter Jean Dubuffet.
The 1917 Modigliani, "Nude with Coral Necklace," is one of the most radiantly sexy paintings on view in the region, or perhaps anywhere in the U.S.
It also bears a relationship to Rembrandt’s 1659 etching, "Jupiter and Antiope," which depicts the ancient Roman god as a lusty old man removing a blanket from a young woman who sleeps with her mouth open and her head and arms thrown back, unaware of her vulnerability.
Like the Modigliani, the Rembrandt is a bedside scene that places the viewer in intimate proximity to the nude figures depicted by the artist.
Oberlin never discussed publicly which paintings it would have sold to pay its bills back in the early 1990s, but the Modigliani could have been a candidate.
Fortunately, it’s still there today, still radiant, and still capable of being compared with an equally supercharged Rembrandt in a museum that makes such leaps across the centuries so easy, so enjoyable and so memorable.
The company of "Sweat." Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2016 and transferred to Broadway in 2017.
"The Woman in Black" by Susan Hill, adapted by Stephan Mallatratt at Fortune Theatre, London.
A scene from "An Iliad," featuring Tarah Flanagan (left) and Eva Scholz-Carlson on the cello.