LEWISBURG - Walk into the Bucknell University's Samek Art Gallery, past the giant sculpted skeleton heads perched on vibrant red pillows, past the giant, Plato-inspired geometric cloud. Walk down the hallway, a little further back, into the warmly lit room where you'll be met by a surprise.
Cassatt is here, Cezanne, Matisse, Albrecht Durer and Fairfield Porter. There's Rembrandt over there and in that corner, Miro.
Famous painters all, but while their names are familiar, the method being practiced here is not - not as much.
PHOTO By Robert Landry/Bucknell University
Because paintings are not hanging on the Samek Gallery walls. Through March 29, the gallery, located on the third floor of the University's Elaine Langone Student Center, is hosting "The Sandy and John Nesbitt Collection: The Discriminating Eye at Work," a collection of prints by artistic giants, some known for their work as printmakers, some not.
It's the first comprehensive exhibit of the Nesbitt collection and it's an elegant one, thoughtfully crafted by curator and Bucknell University art history professor Christiane Andersson. The works themselves, selected by students in Andersson's Popular Culture and Prints class, are impeccable, precise, practically photographs but not quite. Others have the delicacy of a simple sketch, illuminated by soft expression. The exhibit demonstrates printmaking and lithography's depth and range as it developed from the early 1500s to the present day.
That they all belong to one couple, Bucknell class of '64 alumni Sandy and John Nesbitt, is slightly mind-boggling. But yes, as Andersson assures, people do own Rembrandts. And the collection results from a very simple drive on the Nesbitt's part.
"When they got out of college, they got married and they wanted to put some art on their walls. The rest is history," Andersson said.
The prints on display are striking representations of the artists who created them. The Durer, a 1497 woodcut of "Christ Carrying the Cross," is dramatic, muscular and bold; Rembrandt's "Fourth Oriental Head" is softer, more textured, elegant and somehow elusive. And then there's the Miro, abstract of course, vibrant and playfully surreal, with its hanging moss and Barcelona black cats.
Other names are not as well known, but the works astonish. Giovanni Battista Piranesi's giant etching of Rome's famous Piazza Navona is remarkable for its sense of life and sharp detail - the latter of which is a hallmark of printmaking through the ages.
"It's completely amazing," Andersson said. "You're looking at works from some of the world's best printmakers. This is the top of the world."
Of course, she added with a dry slice of bemusement, "there are lots of bad prints out there, but the Nesbitts weren't interested in collecting those."
The works hanging in the Samek Gallery are just a sample of the Nesbitt's expansive collection that represents years of the carefully considered art-collecting that merits the exhibition's name. Printmaking allows for a greater economy in art collection - when more of a work exists, the more affordable it becomes.
"We liked being able to purchase fine art by historically significant artists, works that were within our budget," the Nesbitts wrote in the gallery's accompanying book, which carries the same name as the exhibit.
But the art form does not sacrifice quality and the elegant collection now adorning the Samek's walls is of considerable value. While not one of a kind, the prints on display were nonetheless reproduced by the artists' own hands, in a limited run, using the etching, engraving, woodcutting or lithograph that the artists themselves created. They are meticulously crafted and quite rare.
According to Andersson, the Nesbitts' willingness to loan their works to Bucknell shows generosity, but also a love of Bucknell commonly found among alumni.
"At the end of each year, we have reunions and the entire Bucknell campus is overrun with alumni," Andersson said. "I think the quality of the education and the very high level of professorial attention that students get here is responsible for the alumni's great attachment to their alma mater."
That quality and attention is reflected in a very particular aspect of the exhibit's genesis.
Eleven students enrolled in Andersson's Popular Culture and Prints class in the spring of 2010 played an integral role in creating the exhibit as visitors see it in the Samek.
Through Andersson's connection to the Nesbitts, whom she first met years ago at an inaugural dinner for a former university president, students looked at photographs of the Nesbitts' collection and selected two prints each to research for a semester-long process that culminated in a term paper and in the descriptive labels that hang underneath each of the works in the exhibit. The subjective selection was surprisingly varied; no guidelines or demands produced the collection's range of time, style and taste that ultimately encompasses printmaking's history.
Of course, that range is inherent to the collection's source and after the exhibit opened on Jan. 27, the Nesbitts returned to campus Feb. 7 to speak with students in Andersson's current classes about their collection.
A hands-on experience is typical of Andersson's classes.
"I'm an art history professor who believes very strongly in the importance of students studying and working with original works of art," Andersson said. "I think that is much more important than giving lectures with power point slides in the classroom. So on every occasion that I can possibly think of, I set up a seminar so my students can do the same thing."
The value of that endeavor extends far beyond the Bucknell community.
As Andersson said, "You've heard of all of these artists. So I think many people will walk in to the gallery and say 'Oh, Rembrandt made that?' It's very exciting to make those kinds of discoveries."
The Samek Art Gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, with additional weekend hours from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
In addition to the Nesbitt exhibit, the gallery is also hosting "Influx," a sculpture, video and digital print series by Joe Meiser, and its permanent Kress Collection of Renaissance paintings.