When you head into an art museum, you probably tend to stop in front of the wall-sized works on canvas or the towering sculptures in the front lobby. But what about those dimly lit rooms with small works on paper? Old Master Prints, the common way to refer to printmaking efforts made prior to the 19th century, are often a large part of a museum’s collection. Despite their prevalence, they’re also often the most overlooked items in the collection. Why? It's because the destructive effect of light on paper means that works are rarely on display, or when they are, kept in dimly lit spaces or tucked out of the way of harsh daylight. They are the unsung hero of a museum’s collection, in my opinion, and one of my favorite areas of study. There’s something about the intimacy of paper that allows you a step closer into the mind of the artist.
As an introduction to the genre, I thought it might be useful to walk you through some of the qualities of Old Master Prints that I particularly love. It’s a microcosm of art history that has its own unique artistic techniques, technologies and uses that span centuries. That being said, it’s easy to get lost. Once we've covered the basics, I'll point you off in the right direction to check out some of these works for yourself.
Engraving is an incredibly precise skill. In order to create the lines above, Goltzias had to carve them out of a metal plate using a burin, a long chisel with a mushroom shaped handle. The skill alone needed to carve clean lines is impressive, and then to be able create entire designs sometimes after others' painting in the 16th century is a craft to be admired.
When it comes to etching, the burin is traded for a drypoint and the process becomes much more like drawing on a metal plate. Some freedom comes with a freehand approach, freedom that Rembrandt exerts in his revision of compositions through the execution of states. A state refers to a succession of prints made from a single plate, with further work done between each printing. Rembrandt often reworked his prints, adding and darkening them. When displayed side by side, it feels as if you’re watching the artist in motion.
Another category of prints that I admire are the caricatures and portraits made by the French artist, Honoré Daumier. His political lithographs (where stone and wax now led to the creation of the image on paper) capture the times and turmoils of 19th century France. He’s done what any great artist has done, observe and express the zeitgeist of his time. And he does so in a way that you want in on the joke, even if it is 150 years later.
Most museums have a print collection. In fact, sometimes smaller museums have a stronger print collection than other genres, because works on paper tend to be less expensive than other mediums. Most major museums keep a gallery dedicated to prints and rotate works out, as to not expose them to light for too long. Have an artist you're dying to see? Your best bet is to find a collection that offers a study room and make an appointment. Under the watchful eye of a curator, you can have the opportunity to see a work of art up close and learn about how they care and take precautions against their fragile state, as well as appreciate its artistic merit. A few study rooms and print exhibitions to see: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings), Berlin, Germany. On a recent trip to the Denver Art Museum (top photo), I was thrilled to find the Discovery Library, a recreation of a cabinet of curiosities, which includes Old Master Prints housed under plastic in drawers (and away from the light) allowing for the study room experience without having to make an appointment.