THE British Museum has twin exhibitions in Room 90 in adjacent spaces – one on some 50 drawings by the 18th century Italian ‘polymath’ Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and the other a collection of 80 wonderful French prints by such artists as Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.
“Why Piranesi?” asks Sarah Vowles, the Smirnov family curator of Italian and French prints and drawings at the British Museum, who has curated Piranesi drawings: Visions of antiquity.
She answers the question: “Part of the answer to that is 2020 is the 300th anniversary of his birth. He was born in 1720 in Venice, moved to Rome in 1740 and made a reputation for himself over the next 40 years as a polymath – becoming renowned as a printmaker, publisher, antiquarian, art dealer and designer. His work has a power and a creative energy that feels as fresh and vibrant today as it did in the 18th century.”
It is pointed out that “the department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings…It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the 15th century up to the present day.”
Hugo Chapman, the Simon Sainsbury keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum, says: “Piranesi’s etchings of Rome and of fantastical architecture are well known, but far less familiar is the scintillating brilliance of his drawings in which he rehearsed and honed his graphic talents.
“Such is the power of his singular vision that it continues to excite and inspire architects, filmmakers, video game designers and other creative minds to this day.”
One critic has said that Piranesi “paved the way to Hogwarts” and inspired Blade Runner and Harry Potter. “Syd Mead’s sets for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) reveal Los Angeles in 2019. With their intermeshing, 700-storey corporate headquarters, rough-and-tumble markets stalls, floating video adverts, industrial flames, acid rain and flying police cars, these are Piranesian streets for science fiction aficionados.
“Piranesi is there, too, in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001). Production designer Stuart Craig brought the moving staircases of JK Rowling’s Hogwarts School to life so that they turn within a vertiginous hall, all doorways, further stairs and endless rooms above, below and beyond.”
Piranesi’s sole architectural work of importance was the restoration of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato in the Villa of the Knights of Malta, on Rome’s Aventine Hill, where he was buried after his death in 1778.
Vowles also says Piranesi “is best known for his views of Rome which almost single-handedly defined how generations of armchair travellers saw the city. But also his prints …continue to influence designers and artists today. His influence really has been astonishing but his prints are only part of his story. That is why we have chosen to focus on his drawings. Many exhibitions in the past have looked at his prints but his drawings are less well known.”
She explains: “The element of fantasy is also acutely important throughout. One gets a sense of his obsessively fertile imagination just spilling out onto the paper. He always regarded himself as an architect – that’s his dream. As he had few opportunities to practise that in life, I think many of these pictures form the outlets for his creative energy.
“If this exhibition has one overriding message it is this: for Piranesi drawing was not just a way to prepare composition for the copper plate, it was a dynamic vital act of exploration and a vision all in its own right.”
In the adjoining space, Jennifer Ramkalawon, curator of prints and drawings at the British Museum, is responsible for putting together French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne.
The last exhibition on French prints was in 1978.
She says: “Etching bridged the gap between painting and engraving. Most of the artists knew each other – Paris was a small place.”
Highlights of the exhibition include Manet’s rare 1862 print Le Ballon, of which only five impressions are known to survive. Other works include two examples of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s colourful prints of actresses and Parisian music-hall stars.
There is a comment from Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum: “This period produced some of the great names of Western art and I am delighted that our exhibition will highlight some astonishing – if little-known – examples of their work. It demonstrates how important the British Museum’s extensive prints and drawings collection is to the story of European art.”
Piranesi drawings: Visions of antiquity, and French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne can be viewed in Room 90 at the British Museum until August 9, 2020. Admission is free.