Print criticism.

view larger image


Print criticism.


Allen, Christopher.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



Publication date



Conference paper



Country of context


Full text

Christopher Allen

Print criticism

by Christopher Allen


When I told a friend of mine I was coming here last week I said I felt very lucky to have had a chance to come to Canberra several times recently; last year for the tremendous drawing show and then again this year for the print show, and again for Word as image and now for this, and my friend who you’ll appreciate comes from Sydney said ‘Oh, how appropriate for Canberra. They’re all works on paper.’

Anyway, what I was asked to talk about was print criticism and at first I thought of just outlining a few simple ideas and then I began to realise – and this is interesting, it’s sort of what Roger [Butler] alluded to – I began to find that in between the ideas that I’d so neatly typed out it was all the tangents that were getting much more interesting. So I hope that it will still come across as intelligible, if there are tangents running off here and there in the course of the argument.

What I’ve tried to do is really in a sense to identify a few issues and ideas that I think are of interest, or relevant, when you’re approaching prints as a critic as distinct, obviously, from other media. Because I’m very conscious [that] I’m talking to a roomful of people who know Australian printmaking infinitely better than I do, rather than trying to go over ground that you all know so well I’ve tried to take the examples more from the slightly older history, the origin of prints in some cases, in the hope that perhaps there one can situate certain essential differences.

I thought I’d start by just a couple of remarks about criticism in general, and start under the aegis of Proust. Those who’ve read Remembrance of things past will remember that towards the end there are some absolutely marvellous passages about art and about art–lovers and about critics, and most of them are fairly savage denunciations of most of us in the art consuming community, but Proust says that one of the miracles of art is that it reveals to us a world that is different from our own:

It is the revelation which would be impossible by direct and conscious means of the qualitative difference there is in the way the world appears to us, a difference which without art would remain the eternal secret of each individual. Through art alone we can escape from ourselves and learn what another sees of this universe which is not the same of our own and whose landscapes would have remained as unknown to us as they may be on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply into as many worlds as there are original artists and more different than those that spin in the infinity of space, and centuries after the star from which they emanated has been extinguished, be it Rembrandt or Vermeer, their particular light still travels towards us.

I think Proust is right in considering a work of art essentially as the image of a world of experience. That’s what I think when I criticise something; I don’t think of it as just a collection of shapes but that it’s a vision; it’s a particular world, it’s a universe of sensibility and of meaning constructed together and so it reflects in some ways a subjective experience which may be a subjective experience of essentially subjective states or it may, on the other hand, be deeply involved with social and political consciousness. It may reflect a personal lyricism. On the other hand, it might reflect the alienation or autism of our time. In any case, this experience has been given a concrete, objective form in shapes, colours, lines and so on.

The task to the critic, it seems to me, is a double one. It is the analysis and the assessment of this world constructed by the artist. By analysis I mean, just in the most literal sense of the word, taking it apart, resolving into elements and articulating what was originally whole and silent, a kind of translation, an attempt to give a verbal equivalent for something that’s not generally verbally conceived in the first place.

Like any translation, the process has to begin with reading or ‘listening’, actually, is an image that I think of a lot. I think listening is a, sort of, appropriate term. It conveys something of the humility and, I think, even passivity which you need, as a critic, to adopt in the first instance in front of a work if you want to pick up the particular tone it may be giving off, because it’s all too easy to just walk in and assimilate it to another one that you already know: ‘Oh, yeah, this looks like so–and–so…’, you know. But you’ve got to stop that, and just listen quietly and see if you can understand what it is saying to you.

Sometimes, of course, you don’t have to listen very hard and your ear is, sort of, instantly assailed by a jarring cacophony or schmaltzy harmonies and so on, or just white noise in some cases. Anyway, once you’ve identified whatever this world is that you are hearing, the other part of the critic’s task is to assess that world. By assessing I mean: Is that world that’s been constructed for you intelligent, generous, mature, responsible? Or, is it superficial, confused, futile and mendacious?

Needless to say, the answer’s rarely simple. Sometimes you find, for example, that an artist is tremendously strong in some departments, perhaps very, very intelligent but there’s an element in it that you feel is not very mature, finally, or sincere or something. But, I think it’s essential to see, as far as I can see anyway, because this is something you have to address because art isn’t simply interior decoration or, you know, something part of a colour scheme. It is always, I think, an image of a world and therefore it’s full of meanings and of meaning in relation to the social environment in which we live in, and so on. In fact, I think that way.

I more or less take the side of Harold Rosenberg, perhaps rather than Clement Greenburg in that famous opposition, in the sense that I feel, I think, Rosenberg said something like ‘You can’t judge the meaning of art in isolation from the social context which has given that work it’s meaning in the first place’ — under which it operates.

What distinguishes print criticism from criticism in general? I suppose it’s essentially the fact that you have to take account of the different or the specific qualities of the medium or rather many different media because, as we know, and [as] we’ve seen today too, there are many different techniques and media involved in printing, and combinations, re–uses; re–readings of those techniques today.

There are perhaps two sorts of approaches one can take there. The first one is the intrinsic qualities of the media, that is suitability for different techniques, for different contents you intend to express, and extrinsic qualities, that is the particular way that prints and their production and circulation and so on relate to social environment or… yes, other aspects of society and culture.

I think the first thing a critic has to remember is that the range of techniques now available today has evolved historically. When, and where, and how and so on these techniques appeared is important because certain effects can be obtained in some techniques better than others, or more readily than others, or only in certain ones.

An analogy I think of is a musical friend once observing to me that ‘a discord that should feel as highly expressive in Mozart would pass unnoticed in Bartok’. Which is part of the background.

In a similar way a fluid calligraphic line, as you all know, will be much more striking in an engraving than in an etching simply because it’s much harder to do. You’re trying to handle a burin and cut the metal. And then, when you’re writing, you can almost write on the etching plate. Thus, both the choice of the calligraphic line within the engraving technique, and the choice of that technique itself, can be significant but just as the particular choice derives it’s meaning from the range of possibilities within that technique, the choice of a particular technique itself derives it’s significance from the choice of available techniques you could choose. And, of course, a technique isn’t available for choice before it’s been invented, hence the need for a sense of history.

This historical fact means that there is always an asymmetry of significance when you’re reading historical prints. For example, we can regard it as significant that Goya chose to use his characteristic combination of etching and aquatint rather than engraving but we can’t conversely regard it as significant that Dűrer used engraving rather than aquatint because, of course, aquatint was only invented in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean either that Dűrer’s choice of style or the way he developed his style or his use of engraving wasn’t significant, because of course there’s a whole way he developed engraving the effects he created and was the first to create in some cases — very significant. Their significance can be assessed, if you like, in relation to earlier or contemporary engraving work in Italy or Germany.

Thinking of the historical context again, it would be wrong to think that availability of technique is just a given within which the artist has to work. Techniques don’t just appear. This is a bit like, I think, one of the problems you get with old–fashioned Marxist views of infrastructure to superstructure. The infrastructure isn’t just there determining the superstructure. It’s an organic relation.

So, on the contrary, you see techniques are invented, obviously, by artists; created by artists. Art appears under certain conditions which to some extent are constraints, but it also modifies those conditions, of course. It’s a two–way process.

The results are, of course, not always simple. For example, etching was originally developed as a short–cut for engravings — much easier. I believe it was adapted from a technology, a technique that had been used to engrave…

(Break in recording)

…thus if, for example, engraving was the ideal medium for Dűrer, who wanted to capture everything with the greatest possible lucidity, etching was the natural technique for someone like Rembrandt, who had very different objectives. He wanted to suggest mood, and change, and more ephemeral realities.

Engraving is an art of precision. It can give a much higher definition image than woodcuts can, with finer, closer lines, cross–hatching which you can’t do with woodcuts, I believe. These are used to define form, and to define light. Etching is less high definition than engraving but it’s freer and it’s faster, and it’s not as restricted to straight, or simple curved lines, obviously. You can have little wiggly things that give a sense of texture and the picturesque.

So, consequently etching is exactly what you need if you want to give a sense of living texture. The Venetians, for example, developed the chiaroscuro woodcut to convey the effects of tone and light which are well–known in their painting. Goya used aquatint to express the internal drama that he was interested in.

In the twentieth century, of course, the variations are too numerous to mention but just a few. Obviously, you see Margaret Preston using woodcut for the simplified decorative effect, linocut used by Noel Coonihan, of which I think there are some very interesting ones up there, where he uses the fact of this black surface to make his figures emerge from the blackness, and it works very well. He’s talking about miners, and he’s also talking about the appalling social conditions, in the sense of the oppression in which they’re living, so his figures emerge, barely emerge from the black. The black — I mean, it’s a strong background.

I think I was very interested also in the screenprint techniques used in the political posters of Earthworks and Redback and so on, because there they’re able to bring in photos, and the photos give a great sense of actuality. These are photos of ordinary people in the street, or political events happening and so on. The photos are mixed together, are greatly dramatised by being assembled with collage, and by being coloured in non–realistic, high–contrast, broad areas of colour.

It’s a relatively simple, inexpensive medium but [that] makes it very suitable for political expression in minorities.

One can’t talk for very long, I don’t think, about the techniques in printmaking without being brought back to [the] social and political context of prints. They have, it seems to me, an essentially public existence. That is, prints are made in multiple copies and from the beginning prints were made for wide dissemination; as pamphlets, or broadsheets, or illustrations in books and so on. It’s interesting to see how and when the process of limiting editions was developed partly because of the market of collectors. Because, of course, some print techniques like drypoint can’t give more than a few good impressions but some other ones can go on for a long time.

I think we forget, also, just what a remarkable technological advance it was in our culture when we developed prints. We weren’t the only [ones]. I mean, the Chinese did too but it was a remarkable advance over antiquity, over the culture of antiquity.

As Walter Benjamin wrote in the famous essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’: ‘The Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art, founding and stamping. Bronzes, terracottas and coins were the only art works that they could produce in quantity.’

The Renaissance, as we know, was greatly impressed by the immortality which antique coins had conferred on the features of various dictators and so on of ancient times. They consequently imitated this, and portrait medals flourished from the fifteenth century onwards. I hadn’t noticed before. I don’t know if it’s always been there, but when I came in this morning I noticed there was a nice display of Renaissance medals in the Victor Smorgen gallery, I think, here which you should all have a look at. It contains a wonderful portrait of Segius Mondo Malatesta, the Lord of Rimini and his wife, and a couple of other very interesting medals.

But, nonetheless, what’s interesting is [that] the Renaissance was quite aware — printmaking started, of course, a bit before printing, [this] was the middle of the fifteenth century — that both printmaking and printing were modern inventions and that they represented a big technological step forward, over the culture of antiquity.

This is really quite remarkable and it actually helped to develop, I think, part of the modern connotation of the word modern. In the early Renaissance the word modern was taken to mean the same thing as Gothic. The thing that you wanted to be was antique. To be modern meant Gothic and therefore barbarous.

The word modern changed its connotation gradually with the achievements of the Renaissance and this process started quite early, because even if you look at Alberti’s book On painting, he is already talking about new, modern inventions. For instance, this was in the middle of the fifteenth century, which the ancients didn’t know about, but over the next couple of centuries there’s more and more of a push to revalue the concept of modernism and to make modern a positive concept. It probably reaches a crescendo in the late seventeenth century with the quarrel of the ancients and moderns.

But one of the indisputable pieces of evidence for the equality, if not superiority, of modernism over the antique was the fact that we had developed printing and printmaking as well as perspective, which was another good one.

By that time, the development of other aspects of empirical science had also given modernism a sort of overwhelming edge. Printing and printmaking are, of course, very intimately involved with science right from the start. In as early as the sixteenth century the science of anatomy was revolutionised by the extraordinarily comprehensive publication of the anatomical plates of Vesalius, which remain a remarkable artistic achievement as well as a scientific one, to this day. They were made by the studio of Titian, in Venice.

In the seventeenth century, scientific treatises like Descarte’s Treatise de l’homme were also illustrated with woodblock prints, of course, because they could be inserted into a page of lettering and printed in the same way, on the same press. I suppose in a way that whole process culminates in the middle of the Eighteenth Century with the absolutely extraordinary and unique project of the Encyclopedie put out by Diderot and Alambert and their collaborators, which was the first attempt, probably, to sum up a compendium of all the sciences and arts, in the broad sense of technologies and so on.

They were all covered in extensive articles and comprehensively illustrated, so that if you’d had a set of the Encyclopaedia on a desert island somewhere you could have worked out how to go about, say, printing, or making knives, or surgical instruments, an extraordinary artistic achievement as well as a scientific one.

These are utilitarian images. I think an interesting thing from an aesthetic point of view too. When you look at the print exhibition upstairs you’ll see that, especially in the earlier part of the exhibition, there are a lot of these images that were, in a sense, fundamentally utilitarian ones; scientific illustrations, botanical and so on, and they go from those early botanical engravings up to records of astronomical sightings by Ludwig Becker and so on, and remarkable colour plates of jellyfish.

I’m not sure if you’ve looked at them. They’re really gorgeous. Although these things were not primarily intended as art pictures I think they remind you that often the aesthetic can be in a sense a by–product of more modest aims. Someone who is concentrating purely on giving an accurate description of a coloured jellyfish produces a beautiful picture.

I think that that raises a very interesting tangential question, which I won’t go into too much, but it’s about the relation of necessity and gratuitousness in an art object or in the aesthetic. It was philosophers [who] always pointed out that there is something essentially gratuitous about aesthetic pleasure; that as Joyce says in A portrait of the artist as a younger man, [that] famous passage where Stephen Dedalus denies that either political art or pornography can be regarded as art because they both lead to outlets; to action in the world instead of being essentially contemplative, so there’s this tradition [which] goes back to Kant and so on.

Although in one sense art, the aesthetic, is gratuitous in the sense that it is detached from direct action or from any kind of access into direct action in the world. Obviously too, the necessity which is what makes a work of art convincing, rather than just pointless, comes from some sense of engagement with moral or philosophical, or existential issues.

A case that occurred to me when I was thinking about this this morning was Rembrandt’s etchings of beggars. They don’t make you want to go out and give alms to the poor, in a sense in a kind of direct circuit but on the other hand they do give you a certain understanding, perhaps, of people who [you] hadn’t understood before and I think if you think of them in their historical context too, they’ve been quite dramatic in a time when the human body was generally represented and idealised, whereas he represents it in a very un–idealised way.

You could regard it as operating at an essentially contemplative level and yet, in a certain sense, acting as a preparatory phase to a possible… or you could say, perhaps, that it doesn’t have a direct link into moral or ethical action but, on the other hand, it has a link in the sense that when you take moral or ethical action, it draws on the knowledge or the intuition that you’re derived from the contemplative phase of the art. That’s obviously a big topic, and I don’t want to go on for ever — just an aside on that.

But I do think it’s really a very interesting question one has to consider, both as artist and as critic; why it is that sometimes works that were not intended self–consciously as art are in fact sometimes more interesting than some works that were?

Nonetheless, prints did also contribute to the development of self–consciousness in European art quite importantly. One way was probably that they were very early on collected, and collectors began to appreciate the fine differences; whether they’d got an early print, you know, from the edition where the image was pristine, and so on.

Also they began to appreciate the differences of states. For example, where people like Rembrandt would etch; do an etching and add to it et cetera, and you would have successive states. Collectors became very sensitive to that, very early.

Another way that prints contributed to self–consciousness of the aesthetic in European art is very simply that it made it possible to reproduce the works of leading artists. Thus it is to prints that we owe the origin of academies of art, and of art schools. These things were simply very difficult. I mean, before that you had the artist working in a workshop with the master, but with prints it became possible for art to be international. It hadn’t been, perhaps, before.

No one was probably more important in that development than Marcantonio Raimondi, who was the engraver of Raphael. Raphael, of course, was regarded by the academic tradition as the greatest painter of modern times so, of course, Marcantonio’s prints disseminated the canonic works around the academies and the schools. In fact, I was thinking to myself ‘How could you find an equivalent for the importance of Marcantonio in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?’ Perhaps you have to think of something like the editor of Flash Art in terms of today’s academies except that, of course, Flash Art is dedicated to an ideology of change and innovation and, of course, Marcantonio’s things were setting up timeless canons.

But when you think: in a time like the seventeenth century if you were an artist in, say, France, only the richest or most privileged, or the people who got the government bursaries that were given out every year, could go to Rome and see in the flesh the great works of Raphael, for example, and Michelangelo and others, so most people had to rely on the prints.

This is, in fact, another bit of an aside but an interesting one I think. This gave a different view of the reality, say, of Raphael’s oeuvre at the time to the one we have now. Marcantonio used to do prints after drawings of Raphael, as well as his paintings. What this meant is that there were works; there were prints that were only based on drawings that became just as important, in terms of their influence upon the European art tradition, as any of Raphael’s enormous and very important paintings.

A most famous example, undoubtedly, is Raphael’s Judgment of Paris which incidentally is the source of the famous composition of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe; the woman and the two men. That used to be considered [an] absolutely canonic and exemplary work by Raphael, probably as important in some ways as The School of Athens. But that was, of course, a different order of reproduction than today’s order of reproduction. Where we are now, with the world of books of colour plate reproduction, where etchings of course don’t get included because they’re not judged as interesting enough; spectacular enough for a coffee table, the Judgment of Paris has been completely forgotten and most people; the average educated person who would probably have a fairly reasonable idea of what The School of Athens looks like would have no idea what the Judgment of Paris looks like at all. Been pushed to the periphery.

A more intimate aspect, so to speak, of the more public nature of prints, I think, is also an interesting one to consider. It’s if we contrast them with drawings, which is what occurred to me first of all when I came here to look at the show. Drawings, obviously, have a really private and immediate quality. You know, the artist is looking at the world, making sketches, or looking inside his or her mind and making sketches.

Drawings often record half–formed ideas, things that have been developed, first impressions and so on, so that an artist’s sketchbook is really like a diary in many ways. Not only that, the other thing is that with a drawing, even quite a finished drawing, it’s of course built up by a process of accretion, and it’s often possible to see and to follow the order in which it’s been built up, and to see the way the work started and, you know, this is what happened next, and so on.

With a print, on the other hand, or whatever the technique used, the print interposes a complex, time–consuming set of, as you all know, operations between the idea and the result and this means one thing: that the artist, I presume, wants to get it right, so it’s not used, as drawing is to the same extent anyway, as an exploratory medium.

More importantly, the direct flow between inspiration of an expression is interrupted by [the] technical demands of the medium. The work is, in other words, highly mediated. From the point of view of the spectator, the ability to read the image as the record of a human action, to see how it’s been built up progressively, is at least reduced, if not cancelled.

The plate takes a lot longer to prepare than a drawing of course, but when the impression is made all the lines are printed at the same instant, so the print becomes a simultaneous surface. So, the mediation of technique establishes a kind of public or objective domain, separated from the immediate contact with the artist, or with the bureaucrats.

This is perfectly compatible, I think, with the many uses of the print, of course, and perfectly compatible with the thing we were talking about right at the start; with the image of a world of experience and so on. This is part, in a way, of the objectification, the creation of this objective world, which the picture is.

Another important tangent, perhaps, here, which we won’t go into for too long, but it’s the question of how, when I say the prints are ‘public’, how much more or less public are they than, say, paintings? I think that they’re public in a different way. If you think of a great painting, especially one that was commissioned for a certain position, say in a church or a public building or something, it’s public in a very important way.

It’s public in the sense that it was commissioned for that place. It’s commissioned to play a function in a social or a religious context. So, it’s obviously a very public work but, on the other hand, it may only be looked at by one person at a time, who comes into that church and sits there and contemplates it.

Again, the other thing is that there are great differences between media, as we know. Etching, for example, is far more personal than engraving but, with a print, again no matter what the technique, even if it’s extremely personal in content and in style, the fact that it’s disseminated in multiple copies, and that while you’re looking at it, perhaps privately in your study, someone else somewhere else is probably looking at it too, gives it this kind of ‘trans–individual’ or public quality.


Perhaps to conclude that to return to this insistence I said or at the beginning on the idea of a work of art as being an image of a world of experience, or something of the sort. It seems to me that one of the dangers there is with the print is that it is so technically based that one can get very caught up in technique.

This is interesting because it relates to what Laurel was just saying a moment ago about the question of concept and technique, and obviously both are important and it’s not at all that one should regard the concept as more important than technique or devalue the technique, but I sometimes feel occasionally, when I look at prints as a critic, that artists have got too involved with the technique and are being technique–led, rather than finding what I imagine would be the ideal synthesis, which would be where the image is an image that really belongs to the medium, could only come to being in that medium, and yet where there is something more than the medium as well.

Thank you.


© Christopher Allen, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.