Oh Death! Demons and doom lurk at "The Edge"

Based on our artwork, one might assume that America doesn’t have a particularly death-obsessed culture. Only the dwindling numbers of the gloomy Goth subculture still surround themselves with blackness and coffins and venerate the hoary pallor. 
As for the rest of us, there’s plenty of abstraction and portraiture, family photos from target and daytime television– not exactly the makings of death cults. Based on the prints included in “The Imagination on Edge,” it wouldn’t be hard to assume of the mid-eighteenth to early twentieth century just the opposite. This stuff is swimming in implicit and very explicit references to death and the grotesque.
Outwardly, you couldn’t really say that about Eugéne Isabey’s “Souvenir de Saint Valéry-sur-Somme” (1833), a densely detailed print of a boat slightly tilted and docked at the seaside town. However, in a clever scheme of contrasts, the print moves from the middle tones at the frame (clouds and muddy beach) to the almost stark white of a few facades, and then plunks right in the middle the dark hull of the boat, a black heart in the center of the frame. 
Louis Boulanger’s “Les Fantômes” and Odilon Redon’s “A Mask Sounds the Funeral Knell” much more explicitly explore the theme of death. Boulanger’s print is a terrific example of gothic horror imagery. In this print, a winged demon with a skull for a head carries a young woman away from her bed and her grieving mother. The young woman’s face and collarbone seem to radiate a white light, suggesting that she has not lost her lifeglow, though the demon’s grip gives the impression that it will extinguish in short order. The gauzy complexity of Boulanger’s work finds a foil in the simple, effectively composed print by Redon. 
The exhibit’s curators have pointed out that many of the printmakers took inspiration from Baudelaire, and as the French poet found much to admire in the work of Edgar A. Poe, it’s not surprising to find that Redon has gone straight to the source– his “Mask” depicts a scene from Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” The dark print, which has actually been scratched as a form of shading, keeps a bell at its center.  The creature ringing the bell barely emerges from the bottom of the frame. Only its head, a mask without eyes or a mouth, and its bony fingers pop are visible.
Of course, not every print is so obsessed with dramatic death imagery and beasts of the underworld. The exhibit draws from the museum’s general collection and includes great single works– from artists ranging from James McNeill Whistler (an especially evocative and moody cityscape) to the German expressionist Kathe Kollwitz. But darkness and the grotesque, two themes which bridge multiple works, form the core of this exhibit.

“The Imagination on Edge: European Prints from the Mid-Eighteenth Century to the Early Twentieth Century” runs through December 22 at the University of Virginia Art Museum on Rugby Road. 924-3582