Printmaking is a rich but often underappreciated medium with a diverse number of techniques and styles. The McMullen Museum put on display prints from prominent 20th century artists hailing from a variety of distinctive movements and periods. This was informative for the unknowledgeable spectator, and engaging for anyone seeking out small but significant visual treasures.
Moving throughout European art history in chronological order, the exhibit kicked off with a work by Howard Pyle, who worked primarily in the 19th century. Born 1853 in Delaware (a location to which he would often return as an illustrator), Pyle achieved popularity at a time in which illustrators were still celebrities, and magazines were the hey of the day. Indeed, Pyle dominated the covers of such publications as Scriber, Harper’s Weekly, and more. His work, inspired by pre-Raphaelite painters and Japanese art, focused primarily on medieval heroes, Caribbean pirates, and fanciful costumes. At McMullen, the audience was offered a print of Pyle’s extravagantly detailed etching of Isaac Walton, an English author who spent 25 years writing The Compleat Angler, a treatise on the art and spirit of fishing. Leaning against a tree in the midst of a breezy pastoral, a pipe in one hand and a book in the other, Walton is depicted as an astute bibliophile and elegant reader—the central theme of the series Bibliomania or Book Madness, of which this print is a part.
The curator then provided a detailed summary of the process of etching. The artist applies a coating of wax material over a copper and zinc plate. Using a tiny needle, the artist next etches a design into the waxy surface. When the plate is dipped in a bath of acid, the acid bites into the plate, producing the design that gradually emerges out of it. As opposed to engravings, in which a tools is applied directly to a metal plate, the lines in an etching are very fine and distinct, and allow for a continuum of grey shading that is otherwise eroded in other forms of printmaking.
Next presented was an untitled piece by Pablo Picasso that came out of a collection from Brookline. A Spanish painter best known as the founder of Cubism, Picasso’s works famously abandoned traditional modes of perspective and realistic modelling of figures. Aside from monumental masterpieces such as Guernica, Picasso also produced over 2400 etchings and lithographs, numerical proof of his passion for graphics which he pursued over the course of seven decades. After the “Blue Period”, Picasso began experimenting with traditional etching techniques like drypoint and aquatint. Aquatint is distinctive because it involves an acid resistant that is applied to the plate through heating, which creates tonal variation. This was evident in the untitled piece presented, which, characteristic of Picasso, showed the resting body of a woman.he engraving’s rough charcoal-texture pronounced the artist’s incurable angst.
Up next was a work by George Rouault, a French painter associated with Henri Matisse and the Fauvists, but who maintained a distinct and extremely personal version of expressionism that borrowed from styles of the medieval period. The piece presented was from a series of prints called “La Miserie”, which were inspired by Rouault’s experiences in WWI. In the print, a son kisses his father as he departs for war, though it is made evident that the father was also once a soldier. The work questions the idealism ushered in by the aftermath of WWI, and casts doubts over the idea that humans will never again participate in a conflict of such brutality. Often unsatisfied with the way his work appeared, Rouault took the task of printing—usually assigned to assistants or printmakers—upon himself, and went through 12 to 15 successive states before the etching came out as he desired it. The harsh and violently passionate outlines viscerally convey the suffering of humanity during the Great War.
Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian painter from 1886 to 1980, was one of the leading figures of German expressionism. The strand of humanism in Kokoschka’s works articulated his intense susceptibility to emotional and psychological insights. The work presented was a lithograph, which is made by etching a flat surface and applying ink through the printing press—a common method for producing woodprints and old newspapers. It depicted a girl whose age, background, and identity were extremely elusive to the audience’s comprehension. The presenter asked members of the audience to provide their own interpretations.
“There’s a defensive look in her eyes, like she’s weary” said one woman in attendance, arguing that the girl in the painting was at least thirty. Another interpreted her as a young adolescent. “At that age you’re a little bit insecure—and the lines kind of add to that feeling, that you’re in this transition or in-between stage”.
Without a doubt the most erratic—and perhaps modernist—print was a work by German-American painter Lyonel Feininger, a leading expressionist artist who became popular for his commercial caricatures and cartoon strips. He was associated with the Bauhaus movement, which sought to combine crafts and fine-arts. The group focused on the anxiety generated by the soullessness of manufacturing, and tried to reunite creativity and manufacturing to rejuvenate design. Feininger’s own work was labelled degenerate by the Nazis, and he was kicked out of his teaching position in Weimar. The work in question was composed of stark and jagged shapes that often clash and blend into a mosaic of gothic Parisian houses. The freneticism and yet contained rigidity of the work demonstrated Feininger’s success at combining mass-reproducible graphics with a hauntingly impassioned artistry.
Featured Image by Tristan St. Germain / Heights Staff