On Globalism

by Susan Tallman

November 2014

Art in Print’s purloined motto—“without prints you don’t understand the culture of the world”—was uttered by Leo Steinberg with regard to a particular print from his vast collection. A Descent From the Cross, the image derived from Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after Raphael, but rebuilt in Mughal style by an Indian artist sometime after Jesuit missionaries introduced engravings to the subcontinent.  

Globalization is often discussed as if it were something new, rather than simply the bulked-up version of age-old exchanges. The globalization of visual culture began in earnest when Asian print and paper technologies and Portuguese navigation techniques came together in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The ensuing explosion of depicting and distorting, understanding and misunderstanding, have been with us ever since. This issue of Art in Print looks at conversations between New World and Old, east and west, north and south, over the course of five centuries.

Religion, then as now, was a primary motivation, though often in unexpected ways. The first books printed in Arabic, examined here by Evelyn Lincoln, were Christian gospels produced by the Medici Oriental Press in 1590-91, replete with 67 woodblock illustrations of scenes from the New Testament, aimed at converting Arabic-speaking populations to Christianity. Religious images also moved the other direction: Robert del Bontá discusses three sets of engravings after Indian paintings of Shiva, all produced in the Netherlands within a five year period in the 17th century. (See cover illustration).

Christina Aube charts the transformation of European curiosity into European imperialism through the maps, books and board games included in the Getty Research Institute’s “Connecting Seas” exhibition. In the 19th century, European romantics saw distant peoples (as well as home-grown peasants) through a different distorting lens, as admirably atavistic creatures, free from the repressions of “civilization.” The recent Gauguin exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, reviewed here by Calvin Brown, stands as testament to the disconcerting truth that bad anthropology can make great art.

The 20th century saw a vast increase in the global distribution of images and ideas. The American socialist artists surveyed in “The Left Front” at Northwestern University’s Block Museum (reviewed here by Jaclyn Jacunski) saw themselves as partisans in an international socio-political movement; a shared aesthetic language was an instrument in the fight. In Mexico City, artists working at the Taller de Grafica Popular used similar tools to articulate the legacies of colonialism and the power politics; John Murphy reviews the survey of their work at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Today the transfer of information and images (though not of things) is more unfettered than ever. This has brought unprecedented enrichments of—and encroachments on—local identities. The Chilean artist Lorena Villablanca, whose work is discussed here by Carlos Navarrete pulls from the regional tradition of woodcut Lira Popular, from German Expressionism, and from mass-market magazines to build a heterogenous, dynamic personal world. Wangechi Mutu, who was born and raised in Kenya and now lives and works in Brooklyn, speaks with Zoe Whitley about printed matter as a vehicle of ideas and of action. The playful Heroes of Ukiyo project, described by Andrew J. Saluti, brings together an American artist based in Utah, an English printmaker based in Tokyo, three centuries of Japanese tradition and four decades of videogame design. As ever, things are both lost and gained in translation.

The recent print retrospectives of David Hockney (reviewed by Julia Beaumont-Jones) and Ed Ruscha (reviewed by Faye Hirsch), are reminders of the power of the outside view: Hockney produced images that remain emblematic of a certain dream of America, while Ruscha’s News, Mews, Brews succinctly summarizes American clichés about Britain. In Paris, the exhibition of Hungarian-born, Israel-trained, French architect Yona Friedman, shows that with the right tools, a wide world can be built in a tiny room (reviewed by Laurie Hurwitz). And in New York, Elleree Erdos reviews “Proof” at Planthouse, an exhibition of prints from three master printers, bridging a world of artists.

Finally, Stella Ebner’s Cartier Christmas Window (2014), selected by Faye Hirsch as the winner of this issue’s Prix de Print, tidily summarizes the concurrent lure of the homey and the exotic: the New York window of a French firm, showing African diamonds and Asian leopards, framed in the Nordic pagan fir boughs we use to mark a Christian holiday.

What Steinberg recognized was that even the most seemingly banal act of imitation is the product of myriad interdependent influences. The printed image, if you look at right, reveals the branching traces of all those cultural exchanges, the discoveries and the blinders. The prints in this issue are artifacts of intellectual curiosity, religious evangelism, political agitation, personal desire and social critique. They are, to borrow once again from Steinberg, ''the circulating lifeblood of ideas."