A few thoughts on the art of printmaking, views of antiquity and modern prints

As a child I was exposed to antique prints, illustrated books and manuscripts, rare documents and fine printing by my father. He was a librarian with a background in special collections – not much money to be made in that field but antique prints, books, maps and the like were very cheap in those days and he was a minor collector in his own right. I can recall at a very young age being spellbound by early elephant folio European printed books – running my fingers over the heavy hand made paper and feeling the impressions left by the type, copper plates or wood blocks – marveling at the multi-colored calligraphy and illuminations in medieval Islamic manuscripts and staring intently at the fine details in engravings and wood block prints by such masters as Durer and Piranesi. When the opportunity presented itself a couple of years ago to learn some basic printmaking techniques, I naturally jumped at the chance.

As an adult (I’m in my mid-50s now and those childhood memories are still quite vivid), and a dealer in Mediterranean and related antiquities and ancient art, I still have a great fondness for European prints that feature scenes from antiquity. I offer as many as I can in my online shops. The image below is a good example. It is a large fold-out copper plate engraving, made in London in 1737 for M. Cornelius Le Bruyn’s “Travels into Muscovy, Persia and Part of the East-Indies,” and is titled Figures & Caracters Sur L’Aile De L’Escalier A L’Ouest. It represents the first reasonably accurate printed views of the ruins of the great ancient Persian capitol city of Persepolis.

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This and other antiquities related prints and books may be found in our Etsy shop here – https://www.etsy.com/shop/ClioAncientArt?ref=l2-shopheader-name&section_id=19060930

During the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, printed books with black and white or hand tinted illustrations, usually wood cuts, copper plate or steel engravings, depicting exotic lands, classical and other ruins and the antiquities found among them, were enormously popular. With the early excavations of Pompeii and other Roman sites on the Bay of Naples came entire pattern books of new images that had a great impact on the design of furniture, architecture, the decorative arts and even fashion styles. In the early to mid-19th Century, with discoveries at Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern sites such as the Assyrian City of Nimrud in Iraq, now destroyed, came a new wave of decorative patterns that again influenced everything from wall paper to glass blowing. The growing use of photography would eventually bring the demand for these print images to an end but their impact on Western culture and beyond at the time cannot be overstated. The hand colored steel engraving below, dated to 1840 and also printed in London, shows the now vanished Late Roman to Byzantine city walls of Antioch, the Roman and Byzantine Imperial Capitol of the Province of Syria. From the Renaissance onward, humble, inexpensive images such as this played a crucial role in documenting ancient remains prior to the widespread use of photography.

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This and other antiquities related prints and books may be found in our Etsy shop here – https://www.etsy.com/shop/ClioAncientArt?ref=l2-shopheader-name&section_id=19060930

Perhaps no other print maker is so well known for documenting antiquities and ancient ruins as Giovanni Battista Piranesi. His monumental work Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), really one in a long series of engravings depicting various ancient monuments and other images of Rome, became a must for collectors from throughout the Continent, England and the Americas while on the Grand Tour, of which Rome was the great hub. Below is Piranesi’s depiction of the Pyramid of Cestius, a tomb from the time of Augustus that was later incorporated into the Aurelian Walls, Rome’s defensive walls of the late 3rd Century AD. Compare its overgrown state in the mid-18th Century to my photograph below it, taken several years ago on my last visit to Rome

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Piranesi. The Pyramid of Cestius, Rome.
Pyramid of Gaius Cestius on the Aurelian Walls at Porta San Paolo Roma
The Pyramid of Cestius, Rome. Photograph by the Author.

Of course, upon learning something of printmaking myself I immediately turned my attention to the prominent “monuments” around me. In the linocut print below, I depicted the fishing pier at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina at Sunrise. The linocut, made by carving in relief on a block of linoleum, has largely superseded woodblock printing as the most common method of modern printmaking. But it shares with the woodblock method a simplicity that can create stark, clear results, as in this case.

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Fishing Pier, Wrightsville Beach, NC, Sunrise. Linocut print. Christof Maupin, 2015.

While the clarity of both woodblock and linocut printing appeal greatly to me, I also feel compelled at times to explore completely unconventional methods of printmaking. Today the traditional methods of woodblock, drypoint and mezzotint, among others, now share the stage with newer techniques, such as collagraph, photogravure and various means of monotype printmaking. Artists today are challenging traditional notions of what a print is by printing on unconventional surfaces such as birch bark, fired clay, aluminum flashing and various fabrics. Other printmakers are exploring multimedia approaches to printmaking, using such mediums as hot glue, silks, cardboard, layers of plexiglass or acrylic skins. Look at my monotype below, just recently completed, entitled “When monotypes and kitchen utensils collide.” It involves no printing ink at all, only tempera paints applied using a sponge and acrylic paint applied with a spatula. In the absence of inks, is this a print? Is it a painting? Is it a multimedia work? Whatever it is, it fits into a broad new range of techniques in non-traditional printmaking.

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When monotypes and kitchen utensils collide. Monotype print. Christof Maupin, 2017.

There are many websites with useful information about printmaking but one of my favorites is the site for the annual London Original Print Fair, normally held each May. This year’s fair has ended but the site contains a downloadable catalog, information about the exhibitors and much more. Overall, it runs the gamut from Renaissance woodblock prints to completely modern works utilizing a variety of unconventional methods. Here is the link (opens in a new tab or window): http://2017.londonoriginalprintfair.com/

Another is The Boston Printmakers (an international association of artists). Their next Biennial is scheduled for January 27 – March 4, 2018. Their website includes links to all their past Biennials and students shows, as well as excellent glossaries and a tremendous collection of links. Here is their home page (opens in a new window or tab): http://www.bostonprintmakers.org/

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