Saturday, Jul 30, 2016
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Art

Etching the life of a great city

If 19th-century Parisian printmaker Charles Meryon (1821-1868) had lived in 21st century Toledo, Ohio, he would be tight with local historic preservationists. He would applaud the restored Valentine Theatre, the stripping of the 20th century fa ade from the 19th century Nasby Building, and the adaptation of Fort Industry Square. He would be drawing pictures of the Pythian Castle on Jefferson Avenue.

Living and working in Paris in the mid-1800s, Meryon, a color-blind former sailor, the illegitimate son of a Paris Opera dancer and an English physician, used his etcher's stylus and copper plates to preserve views of a city he felt was endangered by progress. As the huge mid-19th century urban renovation project of Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann advanced, some 90 streets and most of the medieval buildings were destroyed.

A new exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art, “Remembrance of a Paris Past: The Etchings of Charles Meryon,” focuses on the series of prints, produced between 1850 and 1854, that now are the only vestiges of those older neighborhoods where the artist lived, worked, and walked.

The walls of the Graphic Arts Galleries on the museum's ground level are hung with selections from Meryon's series, Eaux-fortes sur Paris, (Etchings of Paris). Here are images of the Palace of Justice, the Exchange Bridge, the Admiralty building, the Paris morgue, and several views of Notre Dame, then undergoing reconstruction - including one of Meryon's most famous images, Le Stryge, a vampire gargoyle that overlooks the city from one of the church towers.

Delicately detailed and graceful, the black and white etchings are colored with a Gothic sensibility revealing the artist's sense of impending doom. Black birds swirl in skies of looming clouds, portents of a dark fate - and no doubt a tribute to American writer Edgar Allan Poe, whom Meryon admired. Compositions are tight and frequently framed by bridge arches or other buildings, a visual evocation of the past being squeezed out in the name of progress.

In a fanciful script Meryon cut his own poetry into some plates, fatalistic thoughts clearly influenced by his contemporary and fan, Charles Baudelaire. “Seldom have we seen the natural solemnity of a great city depicted with more poetic power,” Baudelaire wrote of the artist's series, which he helped push into reprint.

Julie Melby, TMA curator of graphics, says this is the first showing of Meryon's works in a decade. Drawn entirely from the museum's permanent collection, the images are a fraction of the total. “I can count on one hand the museums who have a collection of Meryon of this size and quality,” says Melby. The collection was begun by George Stevens, the museum's first director, and has grown since then.

But rather than focus only on Meryon's works, Melby has set dozens of his prints within a historical context comprising portraits of the artist, photographs of Paris taken during the same period, and maps. A highlight is a new acquisition, Michel-Etienne Turgot's double folio, Plan de Paris, an astonishing set of birds-eye views of the city before its overhaul.

A reading table offers volumes of Baudelaire poetry, art history, and other documentation of the period. In fact, so thoroughly has the context been built that all is missing are the madeleine cookies and tea which propelled Marcel Proust, born three years after Meryon died, into his “remembrance of things past,” which inspired his novels - and this exhibit's title.

“Remembrance of a Paris Past” will be on view through March 11. Admission is free. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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