CROSS­ING THE LINES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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,

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