Catch these eye-opening exhibits while you can

*Small Prints, Big Artists* features engravings and etched artwork. (credit: Rachel Cohen/Publisher) *Small Prints, Big Artists* features engravings and etched artwork. (credit: Rachel Cohen/Publisher)

If you’re a returning student, it’s probably been some time since your last Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) visit. Or maybe you’ve never been and you have a perpetually busy schedule to blame. Maybe you’re a first-year student looking to explore the several free, convenient opportunities to view art in Oakland.

If you’re debating a museum trip — or if you’ve never even thought to go — a visit to the CMOA is well worth the 10-minute walk from campus down Forbes Avenue, especially for two fascinating and soon-to-be-over exhibits currently on display.

Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque and Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated, both of which run through Sep. 15, are pretty different. Small Prints is understated and displays a high volume of artwork; Faked, Forgotten, Found only features four paintings, but it’s characterized by rich historical information and hyperbolic descriptions.

Despite their differences, both exhibits are equally worth seeing. Whether you’re a fine arts enthusiast or a casual museum goer, you’ll want a trip to the CMOA on your agenda in the next three weeks.

Small Prints, Big Artists

Small Prints, Big Artists showcases over 200 highlighted works from the CMOA’s collection of over 8,000 prints. The prints are small and almost exclusively black and white, but they are arranged thoughtfully — strategically spaced on walls washed in mild orange-yellows and dark blue-grays. They are also grouped by historical period, with concise but illuminating text providing useful historical background.

According to those descriptions, printing began in the mid-15th century as a means of illustrating religious texts with devotional images. By the turn of the 16th century, it had flourished into a new art form. The exhibit highlights four printing techniques — woodcut, engraving, etching, and drypoint — each of which involves a different artistic process and set of tools.

Standout artists include early German engraver and Renaissance pioneer Albrecht Dürer with his wider gradient, compositional depth, and dramatically depicted subjects ranging from religious to fantastical to everyday.

There’s also 17th-century Dutchman Rembrandt van Rijn, with his impressionistic etchings: Their composition is simple, but their strokes are rich and layered, as in his powerful, eye-drawing masterwork “The Great Jewish Bride.” And there is Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th-century Italian visionary who sketched architecturally elaborate, beautifully oppressive prison-like structures drawn purely from his imagination.

At first inspection, the exhibit isn’t particularly earth shattering. The color palette is modest, and as the exhibit name promises, the prints are indeed small. But this exhibit rewards the curious wanderer: If you have the patience to dwell on the details and notice the nuances between artists and periods, you’ll find yourself more engaged than you might have guessed, and graced by tokens of some of the greatest names in printmaking history.

Faked, Forgotten, Found

It’s surprising that any curator could craft a rich, engaging exhibit featuring only four centuries-old paintings, but Faked, Forgotten, Found achieves just that.

The exhibit space is quite small, nestled behind the Small Prints exhibit and confined to only one moderately sized room. In the space, colorful interactive timelines cover the outer walls, relaying the geographical, political, and forensic journeys these paintings endured over their hundreds of years of existence. An inner, circular structure at the center of the room holds the paintings themselves.

The descriptions are intentionally over the top in their attempt to dramatize the historical events that conceived and surrounded these paintings. The number-one featured painting, Alessandro Allori’s 1570s “Portrait of Isabella de’Medici,” is lavishly described as “a long-lost portrait of a scandalous Medici princess” — “the Paris Hilton of Renaissance Florence.”

But viewers soon find that the fascinating stories of these paintings really do match their embellished descriptions. After appearances in Vienna and Victorian London, the Isabella de’Medici portrait sat in CMOA storage for 31 years until curator Lulu Lippincott — originally thinking it was a fake — discovered the painting was actually a valuable original.

The other paintings have similarly wild stories. In 1954, there were two rival versions of Francesco Raibolini’s “Madonna and Child with Angel” circulating in the art world; between 1973 and 2009, the CMOA acquired both paintings and confirmed which of the two was the carefully traced copy. Meanwhile, the CMOA awaits a German court case that will determine the fate of Jan Rombouts the Elder’s 16th-century “The Birth of Saint John the Baptist,” which was allegedly stolen from its owners, Holocaust victims who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And finally, CMOA curators still don’t know whether they possess Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1534 “Portrait of George Nevill” or a convincing 1900 fake.

Faked, Forgotten, Found will entirely suck you in. It’s an exhibit that values quality over quantity, leading visitors to dwell for 20 minutes on individual paintings that otherwise, for the untrained viewer, might get only a moment’s glance. The experience is well worth those 20 minutes: You’ll leave with a new appreciation for the treacherous circumstances a painting can survive and the experts who investigate and restore these pieces to determine which is the fake and which is the real deal.

So, yes — when seen one after the other, Small Prints and Faked, Forgotten, Found provide a diverse but complementary experience. Together, they demonstrate how two different approaches to displaying art can result in two equally well executed exhibits, and both exemplify the kind of thoughtful, information-rich exhibit that visitors have come to expect from the Carnegie Museums.