A rare opportunity to view ‘Old Master’ Italian prints

Giovanni Battista Scultori, The River God Po and a Putto (detail), 1538, engraving on paper, 11.4 x 14.0 cm, Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, The University of British Columbia, from the Fine Arts Department Study Collection, 1973, BG 467.

Curator Hilary Letwin has teamed up with the Burnaby Art Gallery to showcase Italian prints dating from the Renaissance to the 18th century at the Saints, Sinners and Souvenirs: Italian Masterworks on Paper exhibition. Gathered from local private and public collections, the works will be available Sept. 13 to Nov 17.

European prints and drawings from this era, Letwin explains, are given the overarching term old master prints.

“The material is primarily works on paper or prints: etchings and a number of drawings,” she says. “There hasn’t been one like this featuring Vancouver historical arts in a very long time. It’s exciting to be able to bring these works together. The drawings were done as a part of a bigger work in process; a pouring of their thoughts onto the page. There’s something very intimate about this, which is very appealing.”

The rise of prints

Letwin’s fascination with old master prints stemmed from a young age. Having completed a degree in Renaissance Italian Art History, and a couple of Master’s degrees, she continued on to pursue a PhD where her dissertation was based around printmakers in the Italian region of Mantua. Her takeaways from the printmaking process there included the accessibility of this art, as well as the outlet of creative expression woven within the prints.

“What was so cool was the… self-expression, that they were making political commentary on what was happening at the time. [Prints are an] extraordinary medium, as well as portable and cheap,” she says. “There were a number of publishers working in Rome so collectors could make their own selections… prints could be bought by pretty much anybody.”

Letwin says during this era, middle class homes commonly displayed prints of the Virgin and Child; the prints were then passed down through the generations.

To further her research, Letwin began getting to know the local art scene and museums in Vancouver, looking into the public collections to garner a sense of the Italian historical works of art here that related to her dissertation.

“I am looking forward to being able to share the Vancouver area collections. We can highlight what’s here and local to our area and draw out the works that we have in our public collections, as well as from our private collections.”

Something borrowed

Amongst the art at the exhibition will be the featured print River God Po and a Putto, borrowed from the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC. Letwin conveys the appreciation for intricate, monochromatic prints like these that have survived for over 500 years.

In addition to the Burnaby Art Gallery, the program for Saints, Sinners and Souvenirs will also be running concurrently with an exhibition at Simon Fraser University.

“Their library has an incredible collection of 16th century Italian books that was donated to them in 1995,” Letwin says of SFU. “While ours is running, they are running one at the library about these books. The publication has essays by me, Julian Brooks and Ralph Stanton about the prints. The idea is that we can highlight the intersections between the prints, the drawings and the books. Often the same people working on the books would have been familiar with the prints that were circulating at the time.”

The program includes a study day on Oct. 28 for people who might have more specific interests in the material.

“Burnaby Art Gallery has a tremendous tradition of programs that bring people in at lots of different interest levels throughout their exhibitions,” she says. “I will be doing a tour on Sept. 29, highlighting some of my favourite works.”

Other events taking place during the two-month period include a printmaking workshop and a music concert – Baroque and classical – that the gallery is offering within the exhibition.

Letwin encourages participation at the public opening on Thursday, Sept. 12 from 7 to 9 p.m.

“…and we have some amazing sponsors for the project,” she says. “The Italian consulate is sponsoring the project as part of Culture Days.”

Letwin says she would love for artists and younger people to come and see the wonderful treasures to be found locally.

“It’s a great opportunity for artists to look at these historical traditions,” she adds.

For more information, visit www.burnaby.ca/Things-To-Do/Arts-and-Heritage/Burnaby-Art-Gallery/Exhibitions/Saints–Sinners-and-Souvenirs–Italian-Masterworks-on-Paper.html