During the month of December, 1941, a group of prints recently acquired by gift and purchase will be exhibited in the right bay of the Print Gallery. Ranging from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, these prints represent not only the many methods by which the graphic artist achieves his end, but also the virtuosity with which he has come to employ those means.Included in prints on view are a leaf from a fifteenth-century blockbook; one of Goya's famous lithographs from the Bulls of Bordeaux
set; and etching from Rouault's Miserere et Guerre
series, and a characteristic group of works by the modern artists Pechstein, Lissitzky, Pascin, Charlot, Marin, and Burr. From this group six have been selected to illustrate here the scope of technique and spirit represented by the newest additions to the print collection.The earliest, a leaf from the blockbook of the Apocalypse,
is from the fourth edition printed about 1465, and thus goes well back in the history of the graphic arts. To the modern eye, its crude coloring and untutored drawing will appear primitive in the extreme, yet when one realized that European artists had been occupied in transferring prints to paper for little over half a century—paper was not widely available in Europe until the end of the fourteenth century—any feeling of amused condescension will be replaced by one of respect.The Institute's page from the Apocalypse,
one of a group of famous fifteenth-century blockbooks, is from the fourth of six editions and was probably printed in Germany. The squat, round-headed figures drawn in simple outline that was afterward washed in with color, are characteristic of early German prints.The page is divided into two sections, of which the top illustrates the fifteenth chapter of the Apocalypse,
verses five to eight: “The Seven Angels receiving the Seven Gold Vials of the Wrath of God.” The seven angels are shown emerging from the temple, the vials in their hands.The lower half of the page depicts the Emptying of the First Vial, as recorded in the second verse of the sixteenth chapter of the Apocalypse:
“And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.” The noisome character of the vial's contents is indicated by the dirty red color of the three streams of liquid flowing from its mouth. This is a colorful and decorative example of early printing, and doubly interesting because both border lines and margins are intact.Blockbooks, in which both text and type were cut into a single block of wood for printing, appear to have followed close on the discovery of printing with movable type. For a long time they were thought to have antedated the latter, but that theory has now been generally given up. With the discovery of the process of paper-making, single prints depicting various saints and scenes from the life of Christ had become enormously popular in Europe. From the making of single prints to the making of a book of prints seems a logical step, but apparently it was not undertaken until printers, using movable type, had begun to produce printed books.An investigation of the conditions which gave rise to the popularity of prints, and subsequently, although to a lesser degree, of blockbooks, throws an interesting light on the customs of the time. Apparently two factors contributed to the widespread interest in prints: pilgrimages and card-playing.When, at the end of the fourteenth century, Pope Boniface IX decreed that indulgences could be obtained at other holy placed than the churches of Rome, the custom of going on pilgrimages became one of the major amusements of that time. People would band together and make a holiday of their religious journey, as described by Chaucer. And, as with modern vacationers, one of the features of the pilgrimage was to bring home some momento of it. These mementos took the form of religious prints sold for a few cents by the monks in various monasteries, and not only provided a souvenir of a happy journey, but probably served to impress the neighbors as well. At some places little blockbooks could also be bought, and these were especially cherished.Card-playing, the other and more mundane cause of prolific print-making, became such a vogue in Germany that it turned into a vice, and in various places was forbidden by law. Nevertheless, as is frequently the case with prohibitive measures, the decree halted neither the making nor the playing of cards.That blockbooks, too, retained their popularity is indicated by the editions which have survived and by the fact that they were produced as late as the sixteenth century. Several of the finest, including the Biblia Pauperum,
the Canticum Canticorum,
and the Arts Moriendi,
are attributed to the Netherlands, which produced the finest examples of the blockbook, but Germany also contributed numerous editions, and it is from one of these, probably printed in southern Germany, that the Institute's leaf from the Apocalypse
came. During the more than three hundred years that elapsed between the making of this woodcut and Goya's lithograph of El Famoso Americano,
print-making had developed from a primitive to a highly developed stage. With Goya, who bridged the gap between the old world and the new, it was brought to the threshold of modern art. It was Goya, vigorous and dynamic even in his weary old age, who seized upon the process of lithography and by his brilliant handling of it brought about a renaissance of the art.Like Sheffield Plate, lithography had been discovered by chance. It has been practiced spasmodically, but apparently no one had envisaged its possibilities until Goya, exiled in Bordeaux, became interested in it and used it as a vehicle for expressing the passion and drama inherent in the great Spanish sport of bull-fighting. In a set of four lithographs, known as the Bulls of Bordeaux
and ranked among the most powerful achievements of graphic art, he made immortal the magnificent spectacle presented in the bull rings of Spain.El Famoso Americano,
now in the Institute's collection is one of this celebrated set. That it was done by a man who knew and loved bull-fighting is obvious. That it is the work of a master in the medium of black and white dawns upon one more gradually, as he observes the violence of the action; senses the pulsating excitement of the crowd spilling over into the arena, and feels the white glare of the sun beating down like a spotlight upon the central figures in this drama of life and death. In his subtle and exquisite handling of tones, in the suggestiveness of his line, Goya has given not a pallid reproduction of a bull fight, but the fight itself. To read about it is nothing. To see it is electrifying. The observer imagines himself one with the spectators awaiting, breathless in the heat and turmoil, the outcome of this battle of brutality and grace, speed and power.That Goya, despite age, infirmity, and bitterness, should have taken a new process and bent it to his will is a further tribute to his genius. In him burned the spirit of a new age to come, and in him modern artists found someone to emulate and respect. With him as an example they, too, were encouraged to experiment, and to express not only what they saw but what they felt. French artists, and especially Delacroix and Manet, were profoundly influenced by him, and contributed in their own way to the stream of artistic evolution that was to make France the moving spirit of the modern art world.One of the strangest and loneliest of all men to move in that world is Rouault; a solitary figure who has dredged up from wretchedness and disillusion a manner of expression that has set him apart from all his contemporaries in art as in life. His etching of a clown now in the Institute's collection is characteristic. It is from the series of fifty-seven enormous etchings entitled Miserere et Guerre
which he began during the last war. It illustrates perfectly both his style and the all-pervading melancholy of his mood.Rouault is an expressionist. All the drama of his work emerges from his own inner life and thoughts of life, and it is his own patient despair, his own bitterness, his own sardonic distrust of humanity that he repeats again and again in his portraits of actual or imagined people. These portraits possess a certain fundamental beauty that emerges only as one becomes familiar with Rouault's work. They are monumental and moving in their isolation; melancholy figures wandering aimlessly in a lost world, or peering intently from the fringes of a crowd.In execution Rouault's prints are completely bewildering. This head of a clown is an etching, yet in reproduction one might very well take it for a painting. It has the same tonal qualities, the same heavy outline borrowed from mediaeval stained glass, that characterize his paintings, and these effects are achieved in the prints by the same unorthodox methods that Rouault employed in painting. “They gave me a copper plate and I just dug into it,” he said. Dug into it he may have, but with such knowingness that he is perhaps the greatest master of black that has yet appeared on the artistic horizon. His prints are among the most masterly products of our time.After Rouault, Charlot is solid and earthly, with an Olympian calm that permeates even his small compositions. If Rouault creates his prints in the manner of a painter, Charlot creates his with the soul of a sculptor. He excels at the arrangement of massive forms in space, as in the color lithograph of the Tortilla Makers,
and he was recaptures, in these enigmatic figures, the power and spirit of their Aztec forbears.Charlot comes naturally by his sympathy for the Mexican tradition. Although born in Paris, he was of Russian and Mexican ancestry, and when he went to Mexico in his early twenties, he became one of the leaders in directing Mexican artists toward an expression that was natural in indigenous. Identifying himself with the Mexican school, he became one of its outstanding masters of color lithography. This print, together with three other lithographs of Mexican subjects, is the gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey.From Mrs. Bovey, also, came two etchings of the American desert by George Elburt Burr. The one illustrated here, Springtime in Paradise Valley,
is characteristic of the eloquent manner in which Burr depicts the burning heat and bizarre plants of the desert. Here the yucca tree, flowering so delicately and unexpectedly above its harsh leaves, brings the tender breath of spring to an arid land.Repellent to some, but equally appealing to others, the empty and elusive distances of this limitless region are Burr's greatest inspiration, and he has succeeded more completely than any other artist in interpreting its peculiar beauty, and in conveying an accurate impression of its charm.The final print in this group, an etching of Woolworth Building
by John Martin, betrays quite another spirit. No emptiness here, and no vast, unfilled spaces, but the exciting tempo of the twentieth century, with its swift grace and slightly wacky quality. Rhythm, mass, and vigor are skillfully woven into a balanced whole which, for all its underlying force, is a delicate and extraordinarily subtle expression of the modern American spirit.A far cry from the stiff drawing and serious intent of that fifteenth-century woodcut, but a logical evolution nevertheless, both in spirit and craftsmanship. Having become thoroughly familiar with his tools, the artist now handles them with all the confidence of a virtuoso, and having long looked upon the world objectively he can now consider its elements subjectively, endeavoring, as the fifteenth-century artist endeavored, to express in his own way the character of his world.Referenced Works of Art
- Leaf from the Blockbook of the Apocalypse of St. John. German, XV Century. Dunwoody Fund.
- El Famoso Americano. Lithograph from the Bulls of Bordeaux set by Francisco Goya, Spanish, XVIII Century. Dunwoody Fund.
- Tortilla Makers by Charlot. Mexican, XX Century.
- “Who Does Not Frown?”. Etching from the Miserere Et Guerre series by Georges Rouault, French, XX Century.
- Spring in Paradise Valley by George Elburt Burr.
- The Woolworth Building by John Marin.