A leading American printmaker and satirist, Warrington Colescott continues the tradition of Francisco Goya, William Hogarth, and Honoré Daumier. Residing in Wisconsin and long-affiliated with the Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is widely known for his innovative use of intaglio techniques. In 1970, Aquarius Press (Baltimore, Maryland; New York) invited him to submit a list of texts he might wish to illustrate for a deluxe livre d’artiste—a tradition of matching author and artist that originated in Paris in the late nineteenth century. Colescott immediately named Death in Venice as his first choice, Thomas Mann’s celebrated novella of 1912 that had first captivated him in college. The following year he completed and saw published a portfolio of ten color etchings illustrating Mann’s text.
For the portfolio project, Colescott wished to create a personal response to Mann’s dark narrative. Its protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, is an aging and famous German author. Growing restless from an overly disciplined life, he travels to Venice to seek emotional release and rejuvenation. There he gives in to long submerged desires and becomes infatuated with a young Polish boy traveling with his affluent family. Wishing to be discrete, he does not act upon his impulses. His love remains unrequited. At the end of the narrative, Auschenbach dies alone of a horrible plague of cholera that was ravaging Venice, but from which the young boy escapes with his mother and sisters.
The exhibition Death in Venice brings together a broad array of works. It includes the original series of vibrant color prints as well as a dramatic monochromatic version that Colescott produced with the same copper plates in black and white with subtle washes of color. Both sets of etchings come from the museum’s permanent collection. Presented together, the two series show how variables of color can dramatically alter our emotional responses to the same image. Philip Grushkin, a book designer whose work made him the standard-bearer throughout the publishing industry, beautifully crafted the original portfolio box—with its title leaf, colophon page, and distinctive typography. It is included in the exhibition along with a special edition of Death in Venicethat was inserted into it.
To prepare for the project, Colescott traveled to Venice where he wished to retrace the steps of Auschenbach to get a feel for the narrative progression of the story and for the sensuous city with its famous lagoons, canals, and architectural landmarks. To open up Colescott’s creative process to the public, the artist has generously loaned the body of preparatory material to the exhibition.
Death in Venice: Warrington Colescott and Thomas Mann will be on view from June 6, 2015 into April 2016. Exhibitions in the Henry Street Gallery are generously funded through an endowment established by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.