On the Past

by Susan Tallman

November 2012

L.P. Hartley’s observation in The Go-Between that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is familiar enough, but what follows that trenchant opening line is often overlooked: the finding of a battered red collar-box, an item long defunct by 1953, when Hartley’s novel was published. The box is filled with oddments—dry sea urchins, rusty magnets, photographic negatives, stumps of sealing wax, a diary. This detailed listing shifts the statement’s emphasis a bit: they do things differently there. As the narrator handles these bits and bobs, “something came and went between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition.” Hartley’s collar-box is a vehicle for time-travel, but it is fundamentally different from Marcel Proust’s bit of cake: the collar-box is a survivor, the freshly-baked madeleine is just an echo.

This issue of Art in Print is given over to such survivors and the power they wield to evoke a world of things differently done. For this volume, we invited a range of scholars to consider early European prints not only as pictures, but as objects in time and space, with specific uses, histories, and physical biographies.

In the mid-20th century, William Ivins changed the way we think about prints with his emphasis on their function as “exactly repeatable pictorial statements.” Prints, Ivins argued, revolutionized the world by allowing the error-free dispersal of pictorial information. Writing in the slipstream between Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, Ivins focused on how images work rather than on what he saw as the nit-picking of traditional connoisseurship, with its hierarchies of individual impressions. A half-century on, however, people who handle works of art on a daily basis have become increasingly attuned to how much the function of any given “exactly repeatable pictorial statement” depends on the specific molecules of the specific impression—how inexact those repetitions actually are. Several writers in this issue of Art in Print point out problems implicit in Ivins’ bold adverb, and argue in favor of a more flexible or nuanced view: a more-or-less repeatable pictorial statement.

Jesse Feiman uses the textbook example of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros to challenge Ivins’s paradigm. Printed in at least three different cities over the course of more than a century, Dürer’s woodblock gave birth to pictorial statements that range from precisely informative to moodily atmospheric. Ben Thomas looks at the difficulties encountered by the English reformer and connoisseur John Evelyn in his attempts to re-present the Continental aesthetics of Roland Fréart de Chambray through verbal and pictorial translations.

In the labs of Ivins’ own institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, conservator Angela Campbell and artist Andrew Raftery set out to answer a basic question about Albrecht Dürer’s Meisterstiche engravings—works that are so familiar, and whose visual content has been so thoroughly analyzed, that it is startling to realize that we have no idea how many were made, what percentage have been lost, or how quickly the plates wore down. In the absence of documentation, Campbell and Raftery conducted an investigation by way of re-creation: replicating a Dürer engraving using the same materials and tools (in so far as possible), and printing the plate until it becomes unviable.

In his review of Susan Dackerman’s Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge, Armin Kunz summarizes the lessons of that ground-breaking exhibition: printed images, as Ivins argued, did change the way Europeans conceptualized the world, and enabled the kind of observation-based enquiry that underlies modern science, technology and epistemology. This change did not happen through disembodied cerebral exercise, but through the active production and manipulation of paper things, many of which demanded bodily engagement—turning, lifting, folding, cutting and pasting.

This sense of the print as a thing in the world is brought home forcefully by Severine Lepape’s study of an early 16th century coffret à estampe, one of a group of mysterious small boxes of similar shape and construction that have religious prints pasted into their lids, and most of which harbor a secret compartment. We don’t know who made them or what they were meant to hold. We don’t know if the prints were chosen by the owner or the manufacturer. Through careful comparative analysis, however, Lepape builds a picture of how medieval piety and incipient mass-production interacted at the cusp of the modern world.

This issue of Art in Print was made possible through the generous support of the Samuel H Kress Foundation, and with the help of a number of scholars who kindly shared their time and expertise. We owe special thanks to Nadine Orenstein, Jay Clarke, Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Paul Coldwell. Finally, I must acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Lia Markey, whose fascinating panel on the “Materiality of Early Modern Prints” at the 2010 College Art Association Conference alerted me to the breadth of vital research taking place around what one might call the social anthropology of the early printed image.

The past is indeed a foreign country, but some people have visas.