The Prisoner: Christian Rohlfs

Perusing print sales catalogues, I often stumble upon phrases such as “A fine, rich impression of this important Picasso print.” I wish I could ask the cataloguers where they saw the mediocre impression(s) to which the one in question is being compared. After all, there isn’t that much variation within editions of prints executed by the luminaries of the School of Paris. And why should there be? With a few notable exceptions, the plates, stones and (less often) blocks were printed by professional printers in established studios.

Expressionist prints of the early 20th century, on the other hand, can be a dream—and a challenge—for the connoisseur. While their French contemporaries were asking printers to run off editions of 250 by next Tuesday, many of the greatest artists in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia were still printing their woodcuts with the backs of spoons. They had little choice: their countries did not have much of a printmaking infrastructure, and in any case there was virtually no demand for their work. This nose-to-tail engagement with the printmaking process had its advantages: it gave artists the opportunity to experiment with every stage of production, often undermining the uniformity inherent in our concept of an edition.

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