Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: A Democratic Impulse

Within a few decades of the death of Johannes Gutenberg (1397-1468), and just a few towns over, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the son of a goldsmith, elevated the humble woodcut from a simple tool for printing playing cards and devotionals to the level of artistic masterpiece. Dürer's accomplishment rested on an ancient history of art reproduction. Some of the earliest art known to man are 25,000-year-old stenciled hand prints [PLATE 1] on the walls of Pyrenees caves. [1] In ancient Greece, founding and stamping was used to reproduce art on coins, bronzes and terra cottas.[2] The earliest relief prints came with the invention of paper in China (105 a.d.). Stone rubbings, stenciling, and eventually woodcut prints spread Buddhism throughout Asia, including the earliest dated printed book from 868 a.d., called the Diamond Sutra [PLATE 2], an illustrated Buddhist scroll. The Chinese invented moveable clay type by 1041.

In 1436, six centuries after the Diamond Sutra was printed, Gutenberg built the first press with replaceable wooden or metal letters. What Mark Twain calls "the incomparably greatest event in the history of the world" is widely credited with igniting the Renaissance and causing the most profound cultural and sociological change. Until then, books—the Bible and Torah in particular—were rare objects, treasured symbols of elite wealth, power, and literacy. Within a century, tens of millions of books were distributed throughout Europe; printed words and images were no longer the sole domain of nobility and clergy. Mechanical reproduction shook the foundations of religious authority with its enlightening and democratizing effects for the emerging merchant classes.

Dürer's first commission was to illustrate Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools) [PLATE 3], published in 1494 by Johann Bergmann de Olpe. This illustrated manuscript became the Western World's first bestseller, with multiple editions and translations into all European languages. Dürer's prints anticipate many of the sensibilities and artistic concerns of our postmodern, digital age. He participated in one of the first mass market phenomena, experimented with a far-reaching new technology, and created such symbolically complex and self-conscious woodcuts as der Messung (Work about the Art of Drawing, 1538) [PLATE 4], which encourages speculation about reality and simulation, gender and creativity, gaze and frame, difference and domination.[3]

Gutenberg's invention marks the exact midway point of the twelve centuries between our age of digital reproduction and the first printed book. It is remarkable to consider that the democratic, anti-elitist impulse of reproduced words and images has been there from the start—even if motivated by religious belief. The world's first public domain notice was clearly printed on the last page of the Diamond Sutra: "reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Chieh on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Hsien-t'ung."[4]

1. Gallery of Hands. ca. 30,000 BC.
Panel of Hand Stencils at the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc that were created by blowing pigments onto a hand placed against the wall. The black profile is a mammoth walking to the left (back, forehead, trunk). It was drawn after the hand. Courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

2. The Diamond Sutra. 868 AD.
The world's earliest printed book. Courtesy of The British Library.

3. Albrecht Dürer. Woodcut to Chapter 52 of Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff. 1494.
Johann Bergmann de Olpe, Basel. Reprinted in and courtesy of The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, ed. Willi Kurth (New York: Dover, 1963).

4. Albrecht Dürer. Man Drawing a Reclining Woman. 1538.
From the second edition of Underweysung der Messung (Work about the Art of Drawing). Originally printed in Nuremberg. Reprinted in and courtesy of The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, ed. Willi Kurth (New York: Dover, 1963).

[1] Paglia 2004; Wisniowski 2003.
[2] Benjamin 1935.
[3] Felluga 2003; Wolf 1990.
[4] Carter 1925.

1 comment:

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