CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Internet memes and editorial cartoons use humor and satire to put a particular spin on events, fuel political divides and persuade people to believe a certain version of history. Those images have their origins in the work of 17th-century Dutch printmakers. A new exhibition at Krannert Art Museum, “Fake News & Lying Pictures: Political Prints in the Dutch Republic,” examines the innovative visual strategies of printmakers during a time of unprecedented freedom of expression and the ways they used images to promote political interests. The exhibition is supported by major grants from the Getty Foundation through its initiative The Paper Project, the DutchCultureUSA program through the Consulate General of the Netherlands, and additional sponsors. It opens Aug. 25 and runs through Dec. 17, with an opening reception on Sept. 1 from 5-8 p.m.
“The exhibit features more than a hundred 400-year-old prints, whose ideas are still very much alive and with us,” said Maureen Warren, KAM’s curator of European and American art and an expert in early modern Dutch art. Printed broadsides of the time were meant to be timely, eye-catching and everywhere – like social media because they were so cheap to produce.
“There was a lawlessness to printmaking and distribution, like today with the internet,” Warren said. The decentralized Dutch government had little means for effective censorship, primarily because they lacked a monarch with absolute power to control the entire state.
Prints that depict politicians murdered in office show a nation sharply divided into two warring political parties and the wildly different versions of historical events they put forward.
“The images try to frame those events. It’s never just reporting, it’s trying to control the dominant narrative about what happened,” Warren said. “Take any number of our current events and you see similar media spin, as with coverage of political violence on Jan. 6, for example.”
After periods of turmoil, those same political prints could be used to glorify a new leader or legitimize a regime.
“Fake News & Lying Pictures” is not really about Dutch history, but about the persuasive methods used by artists then that we still use today, Warren said.
“It’s fascinating to see artists make images argumentative or engaging or humorous to elicit a specific effect on an audience. If we understand the mechanics of how they do it, we become more critical consumers of images of any time or place, especially our own. We can think through messages based on contextual information and start asking what motives are at play. An image is a type of weapon in a propagandistic sense,” she said.
The exhibition has six thematic sections. The largest section, Spoils of the Seas, addresses seafaring, naval warfare and the Dutch East and West India Companies. The Dutch “had a massive global commercial empire built on trade,” Warren said. They drove home their sense of cultural and world dominance through prints and highly decorated maps. Art in this section reflects fascination with exotic goods and technological innovations, as well as the evils of colonialism – especially violence, exploitation of people and resources, and enslavement, she said.
The exhibition also celebrates the work of pioneering printmaker Romeyn de Hooghe, who was as important to the history of Dutch art as Rembrandt but much less known, Warren said.
“He developed modern political satire as we know it. The images we see now in newspaper editorial cartoons are directly indebted to the spectacular prints de Hooghe fashioned,” she said.
He created a new format for political imagery in the form of series that featured recurring characters and were aimed at educated audiences, with references to Greek and Roman mythology and theater. “Satirical characters appear and reappear, mocking Louis XIV of France and James II of England, attacking monarchs in a way that had never happened before,” Warren said.
One popular practice was repurposing well-known images by reusing the copper plates used to create them and changing the text or adding people to the images, like making memes today.
Programming related to “Fake News & Lying Pictures” will draw similar connections between past and present. It includes a crowdsourced teen zine, a broadside printmaking workshop and an October symposium.
In addition, KAM will host a Dec. 1 event featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes; Keith Knight, whose work inspired the Hulu series “Woke”; and printmaker Eric J. Garcia of Instituto Gráfico de Chicago, a group of Latino printmakers making socio-political art and of the Veteran Art Movement, a network of veterans and service members challenging U.S. militarism through art. Graphic design professor Stacey Robinson will moderate the discussion.
Warren is the editor and lead author of a book accompanying the exhibition. “Paper Knives, Paper Crowns” is the first publication to take a broad look at this subject. At 10 a.m. Sept. 1, the museum will hold a virtual book launch on Zoom. Registration is required for that event.