The Story of Australian Printmaking 1801–2005

Imprint winter 2007, volume 42 number two
Cover image: Monique Auricchio, The Embrace, 2007, two-plate colour etching (sugar lift, aquatint), 24.5 x 24.5 cm, edition of 40.

‘…in this case the size, scope and comprehensiveness of this exhibition are such that it cannot be mounted by any other institution and will not be attempted for at least another generation.’

This review of the National Gallery of Australia’s ground-breaking print exhibition was written by Professor Sasha Grishin and published in the winter 2007 issue of Imprint, volume 42 number 2.

This was the one exhibition that anyone interested in Australian printmaking could not afford to miss.

The National Gallery of Australia holds the nation’s largest collection of Australian prints, over 36,000 prints, posters and illustrated books, and has mounted a huge exhibition of some 760 works, largely drawn from its own collection and supplemented by a number of strategic loans. This is the National Gallery’s ‘definitive exhibition’ of Australian printmaking, mounted by its Senior Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings, Roger Butler, who has been in the job for 26 years. The show inevitably carries the imprimatur of the National Gallery as the official history of Australian printmaking. While anyone who has read more than a couple of art gallery press releases is cautious on encountering expressions such as ‘once in a lifetime’, ‘unique’ and ‘never to be repeated’, in this case the size, scope and comprehensiveness of this exhibition are such that it cannot be mounted by any other institution and will not be attempted for at least another generation.

So how are we to read, interpret and assess the National Gallery’s attempt at a comprehensive history of Australian printmaking? One way of thinking about the history of printmaking is to see it as an adjunct to a mainstream construct of a history of art, an account which is essentially written as a history of painting and sculpture and more recently through installation art and new media arts. Riva Castleman, who was the long serving Director of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA in New York, advocated such an interpretation when she wrote: ‘The surge in the popularity of prints during the last decade of the nineteenth century established conditions that have encouraged almost every major twentieth-century artist to create prints. This circumstance allows a more complete review of the history of art of this period through prints than is possible for any previous century.’1 In other words, this approach presents a survey history of art with its successive movements and developments as reflected in printmaking.

An alternative approach is to argue that printmaking has its own unique histories, which occasionally, although not invariably, correspond with developments in other art mediums. Printmaking frequently has a different cast of characters to those who dominate painting and sculpture, and prints meet quite different social, formal and artistic needs to that of other mediums. Internationally, apart from such mavericks as Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso, whose significance as printmakers was equal to their significance as painters, many artists, including Hercules Segers, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Jacques Callot, Seymour Haydon and scores of others who are central to any history of printmaking, are virtually unknown within a broader history of art and receive only a passing footnote in general histories of art.

A third approach to the history of printmaking is actually to look at printmaking as an effective form of visual communication, where the art content may play a relatively minor role. It is an approach popularised by William M Ivins2, Curator and founder of the Prints Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Here printmaking is caught in a schizophrenic bind between its function – communicating visual information to a mass audience – and pleasing aesthetics. Religious handbills, advertising and billboard posters, fall into this category.

All three approaches are, of course, perfectly valid, but they result in radically different exhibitions and potentially present different histories of printmaking. A strength, as well as a weakness, of the National Gallery’s exhibition is that it to some extent combines all three approaches. This leads to a huge exhibition where reasons for the inclusion and exclusion of individual prints are difficult to determine. We have a lovely display of early nineteenth century tradesmen’s cards and printed notices from our early colonial history, as well as view books and examples from the illustrated press. Later on in this chronologically arranged exhibition, we have a display of commercial travel posters and military recruitment posters and by the 1970s a plethora of political posters, prints and handbills addressing the conflict in Vietnam, Aboriginal Land Rights and civil rights issues. There is a curiosity value in such exhibits, a number of which have been rarely shown before. It is also amongst these prints, as historical artefacts, that questions of museum display become a significant issue. As virtually none of these prints were intended for display in an art gallery, their inclusion in this exhibition transfers them from either the commercial sector or the pubic battleground of hoardings, walls and streets into the rarefied atmosphere of the gallery space. The political posters particularly appear somewhat subdued and impotent in their new setting. All of these works certainly do demonstrate the numerous non-purely artistic functions that printmaking technologies have played throughout Australian history.

For me the strength of the exhibition lies with the exhibits by artists who were first and foremost printmakers and who have used their chosen medium to make a comment which could not have been made through any other art form. Take for example the absolutely stunning wall of Jessie Traill intaglio prints. While her art has a legendary reputation amongst printmakers, her prints are largely unknown to the broader art community. Her use of industrial iconography, her modernist aesthetics and her mastery of bold etching techniques make her work significant in any national or international survey of printmaking.

Another highlight lies with the women relief printmakers of the 1920s and 1930s, both those who were inspired by Claude Flight and those who arrived at their own form of decorative modernism from Japanese sources. Dorrit Black, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and about a dozen others form a strong core to the exhibition. While many of the names may be well known, the choice of exhibits in many instances is unusual, exciting and engaging.

From the more recent period, Bea Maddock’s magnum opus, Terra Spiritus … with darker shade of pale is another of those show-stopping masterpieces of printmaking which reinvent the tradition and challenge us on a number of different levels. Its display in a showcase may not be ideal, but is certainly better than representation through a single image. It is a work which gains power through its seriality with the constant revisiting of a set number of artistic and conceptual concerns.

Then there is the question of the inclusion of the work of prominent artists who have a very high standing in Australian art, for example, William Robinson, Tim Maguire, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn and Fiona Hall, but whose prints play a relatively minor role in these artists’ oeuvres. In any major exhibition where pressure on space is at a premium, should they be included almost as signifiers of the broader role which they occupy in Australian art, while dedicated artist printmakers, for example, Hertha Kluge-Pott, Sally Smart, Neil Emerson and Murray Walker, are not represented at all? By combining all three philosophies of the history of printmaking, the impression exists that, despites its huge size, one would need about twice the wall space to realistically fulfil the full scope of the project if we consider the more recent period.

Personally, I find Australian printmaking over the past 50 years considerably more interesting than that of the preceding 150 years. I suspect that there was not a single printmaker who worked in colonial Australia whom one could describe as a printmaker of international standing. As much as one loves S.T. Gill, Ellis Rowan and Nicholas Chevalier, they are only of a local historical significance. In the same breath, I must confess that there are many rare gems in this section of the exhibition, which I have now revisited on a number of occasions.

In contrast, in twentieth and twenty-first century Australian printmaking, there are a number of artists who are of international standing and whose prints stand up in any international company. When one looks at the final room of the exhibition, which includes the work of Ray Arnold, Azlan McLennan, Gordon Bennett, G W Bot, Butcher Cherel Janangoo, Tony Coleing, Brent Harris, Kitty Kantilla, Roy Kennedy, Bea Maddock, Dennis Nona, Laurie Nona, Heather Shimmen, Alick Tipoti, Aida Tomescu, Judy Watson, Kim Westcott, Helen Wright and John Wolsely plus the artist’s books by Milan Miljevic, Patsy Payne and Robin White, it makes an exceptionally authoritative statement on the richness, vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Australian printmaking.

As wall space in an exhibition is always a finite resource, even when, as in this exhibition, prints crawl up walls, appear over doorways and occupy display cases, an argument could be advanced for privileging the more recent period over the less artistically adventurous, but historically interesting colonial material. Even though the exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive account of printmaking in a three-volume catalogue, with the colonial volume already published and the other two optimistically scheduled for May and August of this year, many artist printmakers will inevitably feel unhappy at their exclusion from the show. Subsequent exhibitions focussing on more recent work will not alter the arguments over inclusions and exclusions in this particular exhibition.

If one ceases to lament about that which has been excluded and praises that which is up on the walls, one can only say that this is indeed a most spectacular exhibition. While Australian art history, the art market and the art industry have always promoted painting as the supreme art form in the hierarchy of visual arts, this exhibition makes the convincing claim for printmaking as a distinctive art form in which some of the most artistically innovatory and socially relevant art has been created, particularly in recent decades.

Professor Sasha Grishin AM FAHA, art historian, critic and curator will be chairing a number of sessions at the first Mildura BMW Australian Print Triennial this weekend.

 

1 Riva Castleman, Prints of the 20th Century: A History, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, p. 11.
2 William M Ivins Jr, Prints and Visual Communication, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1953.