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Printmaking for Scholars of Film and New Media

I originally intended to view the Frick Art & Historical Center’s exhibition “Three Centuries of Printmaking” (featuring The Prints of Jacques Callot) for purely recreational reasons. I often find that prints are as detail-oriented and beautiful as oil paintings, but give greater flexibility because of their less extensive initial investment and potential for reproducibility and massive circulation. Prints are a great means of gaining familiarity with a wide variety of aesthetic experiences, as they give us a sense of an individual artist’s taste and experience of the world. They provide a means of experiencing the paintings, sculptures, geographical views, and historical fantasias that obsess that particular artist. Moreover, they tell us something about a society’s taste (they verify what genres a given society found valid at a given historical moment) and about the personal taste of patrons and collectors (seeing which royal or ecclesiastical figure originally commissioned a work, and which monied industrialist later collected it, tells us a bit about the transmission of class values throughout the centuries). Further, exhibitions of prints are a great way for smaller venues to display a wide-variety of images of art historical interest without going bankrupt. These exhibitions bring some of the images that are stranded in the art centers of the world to less trod regional centers.

The Frick exhibition is split into three main rooms. One contains Callot’s work, which is here thanks to a package put together by The Reading Public Museum (of Reading, PA). In fact, much of Callot’s work has been collected in Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh has an extensive collection (thus making Pittsburgh this Summer’s mecca for his work). A second room contains a series of mezzotints from the Frick’s permanent collection. These 18th century prints are mainly of aristocratic subjects, and a few are directly after painted portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The third room contains a complete series of chromolithographs (one of the first color print processes) from Thomas Shotter Boys’ book Picturesque Architecture in Paris, Ghent, Antwerp, Rhouen, Etc. While the idea for this post mainly comes from my encounter with the Callot prints, I will reference the others as well.

As I began viewing the works by Callot I couldn’t help but thing about about the images before me contribute to my work in cinema and digital media. In fact, I often find myself moving between an image’s original register (as, say, a print accompaniment to a book, or as an oil painting commissioned by a middle class patron to be hung in a private home) and its processed, historically metamorphosed register (as the sort of artistic product that eventually lead to such technological feats as the photograph and movie). Callot’s work runs the gamut, from secular to religious, imaginative to actuality. It has noticeably individual touches—especially his “Beggars” series, which adds personalized mannerisms to what are otherwise social types—yet also clearly participates in extant traditions. Some images, like the gruesome Sanctus Liverius (1624: an image of St. Liverius holding his own decapitated head) continue to shock and delight. Others, like his The Wheel from the “Great Miseries of War” series are valuable for that mixture of military reportage and compositional refinement. These two examples speak to Callot’s historical moment. His work treats the pan-European Thirty Years War and sometimes fits firmly within the Catholic artistic traditions of the Counter-Reformation. In a general sense, these works fit into genealogical traditions for history and representation that continue to flourish to this day.

Great Miseries of War - The Hanging

But it was the images from the “Various Italian Landscapes” (which date to the first decades of the 17th century) that really caused me to pause and consider these older views in relation to the possibilities of the cinema. Here were views that were created by Callot, one of the first artists to fully produce his work in a technologically reproducible medium. Like a film director, Callot’s images reside in that purgatorial space between incontestable art and technically clever craft. Like a filmmaker, Callot often produced works that directly interpreted, adapted, or transposed images by artists from other media (specifically, though not exclusively, paintings). One grand instance, represented here by a lone image, is Callot’s five part series of illustrations that accompany Prospero Bonarelli’s play Il Solimano (1620). And, like many a filmmaker, Callot’s visual sensibility vis a vis landscape emerges in the tension between documentary presentation—showing a space “as it really is”—and imaginative interpretation—improving or augmenting a space by adding to it (a poetic peasant here, a tree there), and thereby giving viewers a space “as it should be.” Callot’s audience is not unlike a film audience: while these views might have been produced with specific viewers in mind, the technological reality of the image means that anybody in the world (assuming access and desire) could see. These views are thus powerful for the potential of their circulation and consumption. While court portraitists working in oil painting in the 16th and 17th centuries might be able to imagine a purely private audience with access to the most privileged spaces of exhibition such as a King’s personal chambers, a printmaker (like a filmmaker) must allow for a potentially wide public.

The Small Port - Courtesy University of Pittsburgh, University Art Gallery

These landscape images, especially The Bathers and The Small Port remind me of the compositional debt that directors and cinematographers have to artists in earlier media. Here, architectural details such as bridges, ruinous arches, and buildings or large objects like ships are used to frame or otherwise highlight the otherwise open (body of water, field of grass) spaces of a landscape. These etchings effectively convert the theoretical lessons of drawing and painting from the Renaissance—the mastery of 3-D space on 2-D planes—into a widely circulating image of a particular place, at a particular time, as seen by a particular artist. Along with the Thomas Shotter Boys images of sights in famous European cities, these prints specifically forecast one of cinema’s earliest roles: as a tool for reducing the size and mystery of the world, by bringing some version of a place into the direct path of the otherwise geographically restricted viewer. This exhibition reminded me that things like photo realism (the English mezzotints sometimes achieve an astonishing degree of fidelity and clarity) and experiential affect (the prints, while reproductions, contain small traces of difference, much like the variations in film-going experience between different viewings of a print of a film) have lively histories that predate their contemporary instances.

Thinking about printmaking in relation to cinema reminded me of one of my earliest dissatisfactions with the field of Film Studies. Largely pioneered by English and Theatre departments, it seemed to lack interest in the long visual traditions that lead to its possibility. While scholars might endlessly debate the provenience of proto-cinematic technologies like the zoetrope and the magic lantern, many would stop short of considering older image-making traditions like the mezzotint or etching. The film scholar’s encounter with these prints can yield an almost endless series of homologies that shed new (old) light on issues, achievements, and subjects that we now take for granted. Such images might also provide useful fodder for film analysis courses, or courses on the long game of visual culture.

The Frick Exhibiton runs until September 2nd, 2012.

Kevin M. Flanagan