It’s All about Matter: Thoughts on Art History from the Perspective of the Maker

Toward the end of his 2015 lecture to the Association of Print Scholars, Peter Parshall discussed the ordering of art objects according to the “material factor [that] has long been a standard basis for curatorial alignments.” Indeed, the legitimacy of this basis is one of the chief subjects of his text. He noted that art historians “are trained first in a period and a geographical area, not in a medium…our task as art historians, whether writing about objects or taking charge of them as custodians, is to return them to the larger context of their history.”

Parshall speaks here as the scrupulous scholar he is, carefully observing and studying the artwork within its historical and cultural context. He stands in a long line of distinguished scholars and curators of early modern (15th–18th century) art who have ordered artworks according to their materiality: prints go with prints, paintings with paintings, sculpture with sculpture.

And yet, despite this attention, there are fundamental aspects of these objects—primarily to do with the ways in which they were made and what happened to them after leaving the studio—that remain little known. Without an understanding of the artists’ processes, the findings of art historians will inevitably be compromised. Consider, for example, a 15th-century woodblock printed with a printing ink based on black iron gall ink on white paper.1 The iron gall ink will inevitably turn brown in the course of time due to its chemical degradation, while the paper may achieve a pale brown shade due to exposure to light and gathering dust. The appearance of the impression will therefore change dramatically over time from a high contrast image to a composition of browns. Anyone considering the visual experience of the brownish print should be aware that it does not reflect its maker’s intent. However, the modern researcher often only reflects on the present appearance of the work.

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  1. Ad Stijnman, “The Colours of Black: Printing Inks for Blockbooks,” in “Blockbücher des 15. Jahrhunderts, eine Experimentierphase im frühen Buchdruck: Beiträge der Fachtagung in der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München am 16. und 17. Februar 2012,” ed. Bettina Wagner, special issue, Bibliothek und Wissenschaft 46 (2013): 59–80. []