This duality embodies “Dare to Know” and the era itself, a period praised for its great leaps forward in science and philosophy, but plagued by contradictory failures. Printing plays prominently on both sides of the divide. Martin Luther broke the clergy’s hold on Scripture by translating the Bible from Latin and publishing it for the masses in 1522; by the 18th century, the printing industry had developed for both noble and nefarious purposes. Think of mass printing as the Facebook of its time: an extraordinary tool of unity and progress, twisted in every possible, most not brilliant direction. “Dare to Know” aptly explores its extremes.
The exhibition’s introductory catalog essay offers a broad definition of the era and its discontents: “The (C)onceptions of the Enlightenment”, write its authors, “are intimately linked to the ideals and failures of Western modernity “. Or as Margaret Atwood put it in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a dystopian fantasy with a brutal ideal: “Better never means better for everyone”. “Enlightenment” is a relative term. The so-called “age of reason” was also an age of conquest, as European colonialism accelerated across the globe – modernity at its root. Neither enlightened nor reasonable, his brutality shaped the world today.
The Age of Enlightenment reveals at least one indisputable fact: it was the first real age of mass media. Printing technology, especially in color, advanced rapidly throughout Europe in the 18th century. The reach of the printed material was wide and unprecedented; as a tool to convince, cajole, or mislead, its power was unmatched. To extend Facebook’s metaphor, print was an unsupervised and often factual explosive medium, played to an audience without tools – and often without the will — to scrutinize.
For a still largely illiterate society, images had a special power. Even for those who could read, pictures conveyed ideas vividly in a way that words could not. Detailed anatomical illustrations barely phase us today, but they had seismic implications for 18th century European society. In one section, the show is titled “What does it mean to be human?” a life-size footprint of a man stripped of his skin shows minute detail of every muscle fiber; in a table display case, a textbook contains a bewilderingly accurate illustration of a fetus about to emerge from the womb.
Intended primarily for an elite audience, such images nevertheless shocked an audience – and even a scientific community – beholden to a notion of divine providence. Like Luther’s publication of the Bible nearly two centuries before, the widespread distribution of images challenged notions of God’s purpose with detailed studies of flora, fauna, and even the heavens. A luminous 1806 impression here of the moon’s surface, captured over years of observation through a telescope by John Russell, may have debunked it too much. Russell wanted the coin, with craters marking its silvery surface, to pay homage to the majesty of the almighty. During a recent tour, the exhibit’s co-curator Elizabeth Rudy speculated that it failed to find a wide audience because it was too scientifically accurate.
“Dare to Know” took years to design and includes loans from everywhere. It is incredibly serious in its scale, treading the heights of human ambition in philosophy and science. In a part of the exhibition devoted to the nascent industry of persuasion, Guillaume Hogarths “Four Stages of Cruelty“, from 1751, depict the increasing transgressions of a violent man: as a boy, torturing a dog; as a young coach driver, beating a horse to death; as an adult, killing her pregnant lover; and eventually executed for his crimes, with his body dismembered by scientists in a lab (in a final stroke of justice, a dog gnaws at his disembodied heart).
A moral tale with a jagged edge, Hogarth’s series embodies the competing values of a society in turmoil. A treatise against rampant animal abuse – in Hogarth’s portrayal of what we might now call a catwalk crime – the artist delivers wildly grotesque visual carnage to his audience. (I’ll spare you the details of what he did to the poor dog.)
Hogarth had to walk a fine line: to convince, he also had to entertain in familiar and brutal ways. Lights or not, it was still an era of torture and public executions. Hogarth prints are a stark reminder that the Enlightenment was at best a beginning for new ideas.
“Dare to Know” suggests that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Cheerful portrayals of a society preoccupied with the intricacies of social progress conveniently excluded the unsavory elements of an era of upheaval. For the exhibition, the museums have borrowed from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles a remarkable emblem of privileged excess: the “Figures Walking in a Parkland” by Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle, created between 1783 and 1800. It is a marvel of both technology and aspiration. . A watercolor panorama on 10 connected sheets of paper, backlit and placed on a roll, it evokes an Arcadian scene of leisure amidst lush gardens and ponds, a harmony between man and nature. It doesn’t matter, of course, what little bit of society could afford such indulgence, whether in money or time; an opulent entertainment, the play ignored the majority of a French nation plagued by rural poverty, or destitution in cities suffocated by overcrowding and disease.
“Dare to Know” makes it clear that “enlightenment” was available to a select few, though it seeded something we might recognize. Popular revolutions in France and the United States arose at least in part from Enlightenment notions of humanism and freedom, in contradiction to the dictates of a monarchy. Like the Enlightenment itself, it emerged grossly imperfect: France found itself under Napoleonic domination, and we with a democracy which recognized only white landowners. Imperfect as it is, the experiment has evolved, mostly for the better (although with a wild midterm election looming, let’s keep that thought).
“Dare to Know” tells us it’s too human for our reach to exceed our grip. The exhibit ends where it begins: just inside the gates, the image of a vast planet-shaped orb shimmers like an alien landing pod set amid rows of cypress trees, obscuring the sky. It was made in 1784 by Étienne-Louis Boullée, who designed a cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, the eminent natural philosopher of his time. With his oppressive ideal — an absolute sublime — Boullée offered both a utopia and a dystopia. Better for some, but certainly not all.
DARE TO KNOW: PRINTS AND DRAWINGS IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. Until January 15, 2023. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org.
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.