March 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
A few weeks ago, I had to teach a class on printmaking techniques. Normally, this is something I can talk about until I’m blue in the face. This time, though, I had a set of tools and other paraphernalia at hand, and I realised very quickly, and to my great embarrassment, that I had trouble telling a burin from a graver, a scraper from a burnisher, a drypoint from an etching needle. After some desperate cramming, I managed to get through the class without misleading the students or humiliating myself, but came to two conclusions: first, that I needed to spend some serious time getting to know the tools of the trade, and second, that I should ideally have a go at printmaking myself.*
So yesterday morning I found myself pushing open a door tucked away in a small court off Southwark Bridge Road and descending the steps to London’s best printmaking supply shop, Intaglio Printmaker. It was the first printmaking supply shop I’d ever visited, and the contrast with the many other art supply shops I’ve visited over the years (I’m a sucker for them, despite having approximately zero artistic ability – maybe this explains why medium and technique have always been central to my work as an art historian) couldn’t have been starker. Instead of the agreeably Victorian gloom of L Cornelissen or the pristine Japanese interior of Aiko’s, Intaglio Printmaker is in a basement that makes no attempt to disguise what it is – low ceiling, bare brick walls covered in a single coat of white paint, floor-to-ceiling metal racks stacked neatly but unceremoniously with papers, inks and grounds, the whole of it illuminated by fluorescent tubes.
Printmaking is one of the least glamorous of artistic pursuits: instead of the neatness and the smooth glide of chalk or a pen over a sheet of paper, the sheer hard work of pushing a burin across a copper plate or a boxwood block, of laying and smoking an etching ground and then dealing with the chemical complexity of the acid bath, of hefting lithographic stones or working the press. Even the materials are messier, less obviously noble – the ink is thick, sticky, oil-based, the tools brutal-looking (the double-ended Whistler drypoint looks like a cross between a dentist’s tool and a medieval torture device). There’s a good reason that drawing, not printmaking, was considered a pastime suitable for a gentleman or a lady in times past. I’d venture to guess that this lack of glamour plays a large part in why quite a few people are so snooty about prints and printmaking – I once worked for a curator who told me with a completely straight face that ‘prints aren’t real works of art’ (a statement of such breathtaking stupidity that I was struck speechless, and now realise that not dignifying this with words was exactly the right response).
And yet… this workmanlike, messy, seemingly mechanical side of printmaking makes the final result seem that much more magical. Have you ever looked at a Dürer engraving, a Rembrandt etching, a lithograph by Redon or Vuillard or an Edo-period woodcut and instantly thought of all the labour that went into it? I doubt it. I left the shop with a new appreciation of these humble and sometimes unlovely tools which – in the right hands – create works of art that transcend them.
*This is going to happen sometime this year, all things being well… watch this space.