CROSSING THE LINES
SOME of the technical aspects of printmaking, including the difference between woodblocks and engravings, were discussed here recently in connection with the Art Gallery of NSW survey of prints and drawings. Victoria is hosting another significant print exhibition, which comes from the University of Melbourne collection and, having been displayed at the university’s Baillieu Library, is at Ballarat before continuing next year to galleries in Hamilton and Latrobe.
The title of the exhibition, Radicals, Slayers and Villains, is awkward and sounds like a working title that was never refined, but in the end it may help draw our attention to the obstinate variety and disparity of subject matter in this exhibition, which in turn reminds us of something important about the medium of prints in general.
We are used to thinking of works of art as being unique. A painting is a single object, and today any given painting will be in a particular gallery, or hanging in a church or public building, in a private collection, on the art market or perhaps on loan to another gallery. In reality it Radicals, Slayers and Villains Ballarat Art Gallery to January 18, then tours to Hamilton Art Gallery and Latrobe Regional Gallery. is more complicated, since there are sometimes several copies of a given picture, but then there is always an original from which those copies were made. A few weeks ago, for example, it was claimed the original Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (1606) by Caravaggio had been found; no fewer than 18 versions were already known, but none was previously considered good enough to be the original.
It is fundamentally different with prints, since there is no original. There may be better or worse impressions, and the sheet may be more or less well preserved, but in principle all copies are equal. This means we do not think of a print as domiciled in any particular gallery, and often we do not know exactly how many copies of any print are still extant.
These differences are intrinsic to the meaning and social role of prints. They were multiples and for that reason less expensive, especially as editions were much larger than the limited numbers of the modern fine art print. They were inherently light and portable and for that matter easily hidden.
They also appeared contemporaneously with printing, and woodblocks were used to illustrate books, since they could be printed in the same blocks as letterpress. Engravings could not be used in the same way, since the intaglio medium required far greater pressure, but they often included engraved inscriptions.
Thus printed images shared the vocation of printed books in disseminating knowledge and fostering the explosion of ideas, philology,