Back in the day the stereotypical image associated with artistic prints was more than likely that of the rich old roué inviting the naïve young object of his less than honorable intentions to see his etchings. It is a comic image which is very much given the lie by Christopher Noey's new documentary, All About Prints, available on DVD for The Print Research Foundation. Indeed, it is perhaps the central thesis of the film that the essential unifying characteristic of the various forms grouped together in the generic category of print is the democratic appeal of these forms in terms of both their audiences and their messages.
The various print processes gave the artist the ability to replicate his artistic vision over and over again, and since these prints could be produced in multiple copies, they could be made available to many more people. Since they could be produced more economically, they could be made available more cheaply over a wider range of social strata. Art need not cater solely to the wealthy patrons and the upper classes.
Moreover as print processes changed and expanded, as new processes developed, they became easier to use, requiring less technical expertise on the part of the artist and assuring that the works could reach ever greater masses. Expanding audiences, new audiences were more willing to look favorably on new ideas expressed in new ways. They were excited by new ways to look at the celebrity culture as depicted in an Andy Warhol silk screen of a Marilyn Monroe. They were open to Roy Lichtenstein's comic strip panel lithographs. They were not frightened by the revolutionary presentation of working men and women, of the proletariat, in the work of radical Mexican artists like Jose Orozco and Diego Rivera.
While this democratization of the artistic subject matter can be most clearly seen in the 20th century, it is evident as well in the work of earlier artists. Although not necessarily all discussed in the DVD, one thinks of the engravings of William Hogarth in England, the poster art of Henri Toulouse Lautrec in France, and Hablot Knight Browne's illustrations for Dickens. Prints of all kinds were making great art about the people, often for the people, as well as by the people.
The DVD includes clear explanations of the various processes by which each of the different print genres are produced. These are delivered with authority by Antony Griffiths, the Keeper of Prints at the British Museum in London. For example, woodcuts, the earliest of the print genres, are produced by gouging out a block of wood to leave a relief image which will form the surface to be printed. This surface is covered with ink and that image is transferred to the paper. Etchings, on the other hand, are produced by covering a copper plate with wax and using a steel needle to draw an image through the wax. An acid bath is used to eat away the exposed needle lines. These are then coated with ink and used to print the image. Similar explanations are given for all of the print techniques. The DVD menu conveniently offers a menu to allow the viewer to play individual sections devoted to each of the more important print genres.
Interviews with contemporary artists involved in print creation as well as film footage of earlier artists are complemented by art historians, collectors, and gallery owners. Among those providing commentary are artists Will Barnet, Joanne Greenbaum, and Donald Sultan; David Kiehl, Curator of Prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Deborah Wye, Chief Curator of Prints at MOMA. There are auctioneers thrilled over the price for a Hopper print fetched at an auction at Christies. There is a gallery owner discussing the importance of Paul Revere's Boston Massacre engraving. There is artist Kiki Smith explaining how she really didn't quite know what she was doing when she made her first print. And not only prints, there is footage of Jackson Pollock tossing paint and Diego Rivera painting murals. Still the glory of the film is the prints: beautifully photographed, it provides high definition views of the work of a litany of the great print makers: Durer and Rembrandt, Whistler and Picasso, Hopper and Rauschenberg, to name a few.
At 54 minutes the film is an ideal introduction to a wide variety of artistic genres, a cornucopia of styles and a bevy of major artists of all types. It is by no means an exhaustive study. It was not meant to be one. It is a film to whet the appetite. It is a film that will send you to the library, to the museum, to your local gallery. It is a film that will get you looking for more. A short clip can be viewed at the film's official website.