How enlightened, truly, was the Enlightenment, a period in Europe loosely bracketed by the early 18th and 19th centuries? In “Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment,” an ambitious, fractious, and occasionally bewildering new exhibition at Harvard Art Museums, a pair of images highlights a stark schism.
On the right is “Description of a Slave Ship,” a sparse black-and-white schematic of a cargo hold stacked with bodies, printed in 1789 by the abolitionist James Phillips as a visual treatise on the inhumanity of the wildly profitable human bondage industry. On the left is René Lhermitte’s “Plan, Profile, and Layout of the Ship La Marie-Séraphique from Nantes,” 1770, a brightly colored drawing of a vessel also cross-sectioned to show its human cargo capacity, but made as a sales tool for a French freight company to win slave traders’ business in a competitive marketplace.
That duality embodies “Dare to Know,” and the era itself, a period lauded for its great leaps forward in science and philosophy, but rife with contradictory failings. Printing plays prominently on both sides of the divide. Martin Luther broke the clergy’s grip on scripture by translating the bible from Latin and publishing it for the masses in 1522; by the 18th century, the printing industry had expanded to purposes both noble and nefarious. Think of mass printing as the Facebook of its time: an extraordinary tool for unity and progress, torqued in every possible direction, most of them not great. “Dare to Know” gamely explores its extremes.
The exhibition’s introductory catalog essay offers a broad definition of the era and its discontents: “(C)onceptions of the Enlightenment,” its authors write, “are intimately bound up with the ideals and failures of western modernity.” Or as Margaret Atwood had 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 very much an age of conquest, as European colonialism accelerated to every corner of the globe — modernity, at its root. Neither enlightened nor reasonable, its brutality gave shape to the world today.
The Enlightenment yields at least one inarguable fact: It was the first real age of mass media. Printing technology, especially in color, advanced quickly throughout Europe in the 18th century. The reach of printed material was broad and unprecedented; as a tool to convince, cajole, or mislead, its power was unmatched. To extend the Facebook metaphor, printing was an explosive medium unrestrained by oversight and often fact, played to an audience without the tools — and frequently without the will — to scrutinize.
For a society still broadly illiterate, images had particular power. Even for those who could read, images vividly conveyed ideas in a way words could not. Detailed anatomical illustrations hardly faze us today, but they had seismic implications for 18th-century European society. In a section the show calls “What does it mean to be human?” a life-size print of a man relieved of his skin shows fine detail of every muscle fiber; in a tabletop vitrine, a textbook contains an unnervingly precise illustration of a fetus about to emerge from the womb.
Aimed mostly at an elite audience, such images were nonetheless jarring to a public — and even a scientific community — beholden to a notion of divine providence. Like Luther’s publishing of the Bible almost two centuries before, widespread image distribution wobbled notions of God’s design with detailed studies of flora, fauna, and even the heavens. A luminous 1806 print here of the surface of the moon, captured over years of observation through a telescope by John Russell, may have demystified too much. Russell meant for the piece, with craters pockmarking its silvery surface, to pay homage to the majesty of the almighty. On a recent tour, exhibition co-curator Elizabeth Rudy speculated that it failed to find a broad audience because it was too scientifically precise.
“Dare to Know” took years to conceive, and includes loans from all over. It is impressively earnest in its breadth, treading the high ground of human ambition in philosophy and science. In a part of the exhibition dedicated to the burgeoning persuasion industry, William Hogarth’s “Four Stages of Cruelty,” from 1751, depict a violent man’s intensifying transgressions: as a boy, torturing a dog; as a young coach driver, beating a horse to death; as an adult, murdering his pregnant lover; and finally executed for his crimes, his body being dismembered by scientists in a lab (in a final stroke of justice, a dog gnaws at his disembodied heart).
A moral tale with a ragged edge, Hogarth’s series embodies the competing values of a society in upheaval. A treatise against the rampant mistreatment of animals — in Hogarth’s depiction, what we might now call a gateway crime — the artist indulges his audience in wildly grotesque visual carnage. (I’ll spare you the details of what he did to the poor dog.)
Hogarth had to walk a fine line: To convince, he would also have to entertain by familiar, brutal means. Enlightenment or not, this was still an era of public torture and execution. The Hogarth prints are a blunt reminder that the Enlightenment was at best a beginning for new ideas.
“Dare to Know” suggests a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Blithe depictions of a society preoccupied with the niceties of social progress conveniently excluded unsavory elements of an era of upheaval. For the show, the museums borrowed from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles a remarkable emblem of privileged excess: Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle’s “Figures Walking in a Parkland,” made between 1783 and 1800. It’s a marvel both of technology and aspiration. A watercolor panorama across 10 connected sheets of paper, backlit and and set on a roller, it conjures an Arcadian scene of leisure amid lush gardens and ponds, a harmony of man and nature. Never mind, of course, the small snippet of society who could afford such indulgence, whether of money or time; an opulent amusement, the piece ignored the majority of a French nation gripped in rural poverty, or by squalor in cities choked by overcrowding and disease.
“Dare to Know” makes clear that “enlightenment” was available to select few, though it seeded something we might recognize. Popular revolutions in France and the United States grew at least partly out of Enlightenment notions of humanism and liberty, at odds with the dictates of a monarchy. Like the Enlightenment itself, they emerged grossly imperfect: France wound up with Napoleonic rule, and we with a democracy that recognized only white land-owning men. Flawed as it was, the experiment evolved, mostly for the better (though with wild midterm elections looming, let’s hold that thought).
“Dare to Know” tells us it’s all too human for our reach to exceed our grasp. The exhibition ends where it begins: Just inside the doors, an image of a vast, planet-shaped orb shimmers like an alien landing pod touched down amid rows of cypress trees, blotting out the sky. It was made in 1784 by Étienne-Louis Boullée, who imagined a cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, the preeminent natural philosopher of his day. With his oppressive ideal — an absolute sublime — Boullée proposed a utopia and dystopia all at once. Better for some, but definitely not all.
DARE TO KNOW: PRINTS AND DRAWINGS IN THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. Through Jan. 15, 2023. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org.