The Graphic Masters exhibit — featuring the works of Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb — is open through Aug. 28 at SAM.

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When a Seattle-area art collector purchased a first edition of Francisco Goya’s print cycle, “Los Caprichos,” last year and agreed to lend it to the Seattle Art Museum, SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa knew she had a cornerstone on which to build a major exhibit.

In “Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb,” she focuses on six towering peaks from the graphic-arts mountain range and gives each artist ample room to be himself. (The one exception: Rembrandt, represented by just six prints.) The pleasure of this finely mounted show — and there’s plenty of pleasure to be had — is in seeing how distinctive different artists’ voices can be using only lines and shading (the definition of “graphic art,” whether it’s printmaking or pen and pencil put to paper).

Albrecht Dürer’s cycle of woodcuts, “The Large Passion” — on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — takes viewers through the stages of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in painstaking detail. Within the cycle, there’s a compositional evolution at work. The first seven woodcuts, created in 1497-1499, are jampacked with action; the last four, created 1510-1511, are airier, showing an Italian influence on the German artist after his travels there. (Note: Dürer’s most famous engraving, “Knight, Death and the Devil,” from 1513, is also on display.)

Exhibition review

“Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb”

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through Aug. 28. Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $12.95-$19.95 (206-654-3100 or

William Hogarth’s “The Harlot’s Progress” (1732) and “The Rake’s Progress” (1735) depict innocents heading for debauched ruin. Hogarth’s take on the nefarious types corrupting them is so cutting and his etching-and-engraving technique is so virtuosic that you can’t help delighting in these moralistic tales of doom.

“Los Caprichos,” however, is the riveting heart of the show. Its 80 prints, first published in 1799, make you feel you’re plumbing the unconscious of a whole nation: Inquisition-era Spain.

Goya combined different methods — etching, aquatint, drypoint — to create these extraordinary images. In them, the everyday world is closely observed, turned upside and used as a springboard into hallucinatory realms.

Fate is pictured as a satyr slinging his victim around in “Ups and Downs.” Donkeys ride their masters in “You Who Cannot.” Amiable demons fondly groom each other in “They Spruce Themselves Up.” An older witch gives a younger witch broom-riding lessons in “Pretty Teacher!”

In several images, key figures are “spot-lit” while their companions occupy gray limbos. The sheer variety of ways that Goya contorts and configures his human and phantasmagorical subjects is exhilarating.

Two prints of “You Will Not Escape” — one from the 1799 edition, one from a SAM-owned 10th edition — make clear how much more crisp and kinetic energy the first printing was, and how lucky we are to get a look at it.

The “Vollard Suite” of Pablo Picasso — consisting mostly of etchings — is more scattershot in style and quality, but includes some masterpieces. The mood ranges from sexual bedlam to peaceful pagan idyll. In “Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman” (1933), fairy-tale enchantment and erotic menace grow indistinguishable. “Boy and Sleeping Woman by Candlelight” is more innocently intimate.

R. Crumb, the legendary comic-book artist of the 1960s, is represented by his unlikely 2009 project: “The Book of Genesis.” (“All 50 Chapters,” the title page shouts. “Nothing Left Out!”)

In 207 ink drawings on paper, Crumb takes you on a wild and gritty word-for-word tour of the first book of the Old Testament. A surly God, sporting an ankle-length beard, chides and punishes his human creations. Battles, banishments, begettings and betrayals are the name of the game.

Crumb’s handling of the post-flood exit from Noah’s Ark and his depiction of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt leave you in no doubt that he belongs in this august company.