PRINTMAKING A Very short History

You might think that a print is always part
of some sort of high end, art museum collection room, WRONG! The print is way more than that. First of all it isn’t just etching and wood
cuts, it’s anything that is reproduced in hard copy. If the printed edition is ten or ten million,
it doesn’t matter it’s still a print. If you consider books and magazines for example,
to be just a stack of prints bound together, and they certainly are, the printed image
has been a mega-mass medium for 5 centuries in the west, ubiquitous and sometimes disposable. The Chinese invented printmaking in the 9th
century, while Europeans had mostly collapsed into Barbarism. The Chinese brought to it to a stunningly
high level of technical sophistication, but they didn’t exploited it’s full potential. It took Europeans 600 years to catch up with
Chinese ingenuity, but in 1455 a German inventor named Claus Gutenburg realized that there
was money to made, and since there is nothing more motivating than payday, he devised a
breakthrough movable type contraption. A page could be set up, printed, broken down
and set again with a brand new page. He mass produced a bible in latin. It was the first best seller. Before Gutenberg, books were slavishly copied
out and illustrated by hand. There were perhaps 100,000 in all of Europe. By 1500 there were 20 million. Printing and printmaking changed everything. Knowledge was the exclusive property of the
scholar, cleric and aristocrat, Within a generation knowledge was democratized. Woodblock illustrations could be folded into
print racks effortlessly, and images became democratic at almost the same time. The dance of death for example, a popular
late medieval obsession, was ripe and ready for the popular press. Painted images, unless they were part of a
church, were mainly for rich big shots. Prints were for everybody. The German printmaker Albert Durer cranked
out an entire book of imaginative and sensational woodcuts illustrating Revelations, the cataclysmic
final chapter of the bible. Here we see the four apocalyptic horsemen,
death, famine war and pestilence, running roughshod over the human race, or the 7 headed
monster of the end times lumbering forth. Durer knew that popular art had to rock if
it was gonna sell. Prints, such as these 17th century etchings
started to addressed humble, domestic or topical themes, a cozy peasant household, or giving
alms to beggars. Even fine Fine artists who, usually worked
for kings, wanted a piece of the action. Famous paintings were reproduced in etchings
and engraving, and distributed into the mass market. Until 1800 printmaking was still a more or
less slow, traditional, laborious business. prints still had to be prepared, inked and
pulled by hand. in 1796 the invention of Lithography changed
all of that. Inking and reproduction was suddenly fast,
cheep and largely mechanical. The first great artist to take advantage of
this was Honore Daumier, who made a living drawing graphics for the journals of Paris. A great print could now be had for the price
of a newspaper. In the 1890s Henri de Toulose Lautrec popularized
full color lithographic posters. With bold, evocative graphic chops, he promoted
cheap cabarets and absynth dives in and around Momartre, the evil disney land on the left
bank of Paris. By the early 20th century, mechanical offset
lithography and vastly improved reproduction technology touched off an explosion in image
reproduction. Book illustration, magazines, comics, posters,
newspaper graphics, advertising, it was a veritable tsunami of images, not for the museum
but for the person on the street. and it addressed that person’s world, that
persons concerns, that person’s dreams. The museum university establishment, as a
general thing, takes little interest in the humble print, but it is arguably the most
powerful, most persuasive, and most meaningful medium that has ever existed, simply because
it was cheap, it was everywhere, and it spoke to the lives and interests of millions of
people, every day, very directly. A popular graphic has to be immediate, understandable,
has to convey a sentiment or visualize a story or all of that. But none of this precludes a graphic from
being, occasionally anyway, very serious and compelling art. The lithograph my Daumier for example, documents
an 19th century atrocity. 14 civilians were killed, sleeping in their
tenement flats, by panicked soldiers. The digital revolution is the new gutenberg
press, and the age of hard copy is passing, but what that means is up to you.

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