by Anna Schultz // Aug. 9, 2011
Prints and multiples, no matter how limited the editions, are commonly -and often unjustly- criticized for their supposed lack of originality. This antiquated debate is a surprisingly constant factor in art criticism and art historical discourse alike. It remains as prejudiced as it was at the very beginnings of printmaking, more than half a millennium ago. The fact is, however, that even during the ongoing Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a well-worn term coined by Walter Benjamin, many mechanically reproduced works have all but lost their appeal or, to hark back to Benjamin, aura.
This becomes very obvious exploring the prints currently on display in the exhibition space of the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin’s finest collection of works on paper. The riches of its collection extend well beyond engravings (Kupferstiche); more than half a million objects including a very substantial collection of 20th and 21st century prints and drawings (it is considered by some as Berlin’s best kept secret that these can be looked at closely upon request in the study room by anybody, free of charge – don’t forget to bring your id) are stored at the Kulturforum.
The exhibition aims to examine and discuss the influence of photography on printmaking and it does so in a variety of ways. Whilst the first photo was taken as early as 1826 (by Nicéphore Nièpce) it took some time for printmakers to realize and explore the possibilities which opened up with the discovery of this new medium. By the end of the 19th century, photography, initially regarded by many painters as a threat to artistic practice, had widely established its place as a medium of artistic expression. Furthermore, photographic techniques were often combined with traditional methods, such as etching, leading to the development of new techniques like cliché verre and heliogravure. Within a century photography was present in everyday life, even available to the amateur. Boundaries between printmaking and photography blurred and artists embraced new ways of seeing and new possibilities of expression, which have developed in a plethora of different ways. It is certainly surprising that this exhibition should be among the first attempts to explore the multifaceted results of this development, showing a wide variety of examples and giving a good overview on the the various printmaking techniques (make sure you watch the video in the foyer and buy the catalog!).
Schwarzwasser (1990/1), a woodcut by Franz Gertsch is based on a photograph of pond water. The artist, a virtuoso in the purest sense, meticulously carved the detailed image of rippled waves onto woodblock and created an object of astounding beauty and tactility, which conveys the tranquility of the motif and an immediacy all the more present due to the print’s astonishing dimensions (276 x 214 cm).
Whilst some artists rely on found photographic images, reproduced in the mass media and reassemble these in order to convey a new – and in many cases political – meaning (Sigmar Polke’s and Eduardo Paolozzi’s works from the 1970s), others explore the boundaries between art and pop culture. Besides the photos which served as the source for these images, these screenprints, like most other techniques present in the exhibition, rely directly on the invention of photography for their making.
Not all exhibits have a wall power and mass appeal akin to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn series (1967), which has become somewhat of an iconic image, like a contemporary Mona Lisa. However, here, Marilyn is in good company – Al Taylor’s Brigitte Bardot and various of Mel Ramos’s pin up girls are also present; but the exhibition looks beyond the glossy surface of pop culture and advertising. In Christian Boltanski’s Gymnasium Chases (1991), a series of 23 heads are enlarged from a yearbook photograph taken at a Jewish high school in Vienna, before the large majority of the pupils were deported and subsequently murdered in concentration camps. The images, blurred and strangely alienated due to the enlargement of detail and heliogravure technique, have a haunting beauty despite the underlying brutality. Printed in a small edition of only 15, the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to experience these works in a gallery space.
Last but not least, a substantial part of the exhibition is devoted to the „digital revolution“ and explores the developments digital photography has brought to the field of printmaking. With digital photography largely available, the snapshot is elevated into the ranks of fine art and represented through a good selection of works by Eberhard Havekost and Miroslaw Balka.
Image manipulation, distortion due to digital photo editing and new printing techniques with inkjet printers are largely available and are to some extent replacing traditional printers’ studios. These are enabling artists to create, edit/manipulate and reproduce works with a hitherto unknown pace, further blurring or rather stretching the boundaries between ‘fake’ and ‘reality’, original’ and ‘copy’, ‘craft’/ ‘amateurism’ and ‘high brow’ art.
This debate, as exciting and controversial as it may seem, is hardly a new phenomenon: in 1856 Nadar, among the first professional photographers stated: “Photography is a wonderful discovery, a science, which attracted the greatest intellects, an art which inspired the wisest thinkers – and yet each fool can have a go.“ This may be so, but the exhibition proves that the results are nevertheless well worth having a closer look at.
New Realities. PhotoGraphik from Warhol to Havekost
Exhibition: Jun. 10 – Oct 09, 2011
Opening Hours: Tue-Fri 10 am – 6 pm, Sat/Sun 11 am – 6 pm
Catalogue 25 euros
Opening Hours: Tue-Fri 9 am – 4 pm
Kulturforum, Matthäikirchplatz (click here for map)
Anna Schultz is a print historian with a soft spot for 19th century artists and a passion for old paper. She has studied art history at Christie’s Education, the Courtauld Institute of Art and UCL in London and worked at the British Museum in the Department of Prints and Drawings. She is currently based in Berlin, working at the Kupferstichkabinett on a research project exploring the drawings of Karl Friedrich Schinkel.