Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Opening the Floodgates

Rembrandt may be remembered today primarily as a great painter, but etchings are what first made him famous throughout Europe.[1] Prints were a way to sell art to a larger market than could afford to buy or travel to view an original oil painting.[2] Rembrandt biographer Gary Schwartz argues "it was Rembrandt the etcher who most palpably changed the history of art."[3] Rembrandt produced 300 etchings, and his plates were printed upon over and over again under his supervision and long after his death.[4] But this master's prolificacy represents just the beginning of the more widespread distribution of art to come.

Within a hundred years of Rembrandt's death, a young Japanese artist would begin work raising the level of artistic reproduction by two orders of magnitude. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) [PLATE 8] produced an astonishing 35,000 drawings and prints in his lifetime (an average of two per day), continuing the ancient tradition of woodcut printing, which the Japanese call Ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world." Meanwhile, Hokusai's French contemporary Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) invented lithography in 1798 to publicize his plays, creating a process capable of printing 30,000 impressions with one lithographic stone.

By the second half of the Nineteenth Century, Europe had witnessed not only the influx of Japanese woodcuts, but also the transformational inventions of the industrial revolution: photography, halftones, color-separation, and steam-powered presses capable of printing 10,000 sheets per hour. First came Daguerreotypomania [PLATE 9], after the French government publicized the existence of this early photographic process in the summer of 1839, then Japonisme took over with the reopening of trade with the West in 1854, and finally the poster craze plastered Paris once Jules Chéret (1836-1932) [PLATE 10] opened his print shop in 1866, and Europe was flooded with posters by Bonnard [PLATE 11], Toulouse-Latrec [PLATE 12], and many others (a trend that continues today with the ubiquitous poster reproductions of Degas [PLATE 13] and other artists of the time).

1. Katsushika Hokusai. Kohada Koheiji. ca. 1830.
From Hyaku-Monogatari ("Ghost Tales"). Chúban size woodblock color print. Signature: Zen Hokusai hitsu. Publisher: Tsuru-ya Kiemon. One of the many stories of a man who turned into a snake or serpent after his death. Courtesy of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese in Haifa, Israel.

2. Theodore Maurisset. Daguerreotypemania. 1839.
Lithograph with applied color, 25.4 x 35.1 cm. Courtesy of the George Eastman House.

3. Jules Chéret. Palais de Glace - Jeune Fille. 1894.
Original lithograph poster in colours. Signed and dated in the stone. Issued as small-scale domestic poster in the form of a supplement to a special issue of the Courrier Français, January, 1895. Printed at the studio of Chaix – the Atelier Cheret. Courtesy of William Weston Gallery.

4. Pierre Bonnard. Poster for La Revue Blanche. 1894.
Color lithograph, 58.7 x 78.2 (23 1/8 x 30 3/4). Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

5. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Divan Japonais. 1893.
Lithograph poster, 31 5/8 x 23 7/8" (80.3 x 60.7 cm). Publisher: Édouard Fournier, Paris. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund. Édouard Fournier, owner of the Divan Japonais cabaret in Montmartre, Paris, commissioned this poster after redecorating the nightclub with Japanese motifs. Toulouse-Lautrec depicts two of his friends in the foreground, cancan dancer Jane Avril and art critic Édouard Dujardin, with singer Yvette Guilbert performing with her signature black gloves in the background.

6. Edgar Degas. l'Etoile ou Danseuse sur scène. 1876-1877.
Pastel, 0.058 x 0.042 cm. Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

[1] Alpers 2003.
[2] Schwartz 2004.
[3] Schwartz 1991.
[4] Orenstein, nd.

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