Featuring the works of 50 artists and ranging across the modern era, Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the frottage technique and its many artistic applications.
The technique known as rubbing or frottage falls somewhere between drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, combining elements of all these mediums. It involves making an impression of an object through the transfer of its forms onto a sheet of paper, which is usually achieved by rubbing the paper over the object or incised surface with a marking agent such as graphite or wax crayon. The term frottage derives from the French frotter (to rub) and is most commonly associated today with the Surrealist artist Max Ernst and the idiosyncratic images that he created from a variety of surfaces, including wood and leaves, for his famous print portfolio Histoire Naturelle (1926). Ernst claimed that he discovered the technique in 1925, while gazing at the floorboards of his hotel room, and he regarded it as his contribution to automatism. As a type of automatic drawing, or a partially indirect process applied to achieve unpremeditated imaginary compositions, frottage became one of the key practices of Surrealist drawing.
Whether used for documentation or as a form of artistic expression, rubbings can be regarded as shadows of an object, and to a certain extent they can be seen as capturing a moment in time. Their spectral appearance evokes a sense of ghostliness—indeed, the artist Henri Michaux referred to his rubbings as “apparitions”—and their subjects are often traces of the human body or eerie remnants of a lost place or time. Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now examines the use of this particular medium from the late 19th century to the present day. The technique itself is the element that links works by artists from different periods of the modern era, and from different parts of the world, including historical figures such as the Czech Surrealist Jindřich Štýrský; masters of 20th-century avant-garde movements like Arte Povera with Alighiero Boetti and Giuseppe Penone; members of the Pop Art movement such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine; and contemporary artists such as Mona Hatoum, Gabriel Orozco, and Zarina. The exhibition will also feature lesser known figures, such as the Czech artist Adriena Šimotová, who recently passed away at the age of 91.
In fact, Ernst’s frottage technique is rooted in an important tradition of rubbing for artistic, historical, and scientific purposes that can be traced as far back as the 6th century CE. The transfers on paper of designs and inscriptions in ancient Chinese tombs, for instance, are sometimes all that remain of sites that have since disappeared. In Britain, there has been an enthusiasm for brass rubbings and the reproduction of tomb designs and memorial plaques in medieval churches since the early 19th century. Today, these works are more than mere records as they represent specific aesthetic choices of the “rubbers” of past eras. Over the centuries, leaf and plant rubbings have provided accurate reproductions of the natural world. Here too, careful compositional judgment was applied to the presentation of these reproductive works that nestle between art and science. Rarely exhibited examples of monumental British brass tomb rubbings and plant rubbings made for scientific purposes have been selected for the installation.
Apparitions is the first museum exhibition to present an in-depth and comprehensive survey of a versatile technique that is both deeply rooted in art history and intrinsically current. The exhibition is organized into four loosely chronological and thematic groupings: Frottage and Surrealism, Traces, Phantoms, and Memory and Mortality. The eclectic yet singularly focused selection of artworks demonstrates the multifaceted ways in which artists have played with this technique, using it to expand the traditional boundaries of draftsmanship. The Menil is presenting the entire Max Ernst Histoire Naturelle portfolio, 34 frottages reproduced in collotype (a continuous-tone process), called by curator Allegra Pesenti “Ernst’s manifesto of Surrealist drawing.”
Apparitions is co-organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and is curated by Allegra Pesenti, Curator at Large, Menil Drawing Institute. The fully illustrated catalogue is available in the Menil Bookstore.
This exhibition is generously supported by Clare Casademont and Michael Metz; John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; Michael Zilkha; Frost Bank; UBS Wealth Management/UBS Private Wealth Management; Janet and Paul Hobby; David and Anne Kirkland; Marilyn Oshman; Michael and Diane Cannon; Scott and Judy Nyquist; and the City of Houston. Support for the related publication was provided by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund