Printing, strictly defined, is the process by which ink is transferred from a prepared matrix to another surface; prints are the material objects that bear the ink transferred by this process. From the mid-fifteenth century until the early nineteenth century in the west, a printing press powered by hand was most commonly used to effect the transfer. As a result, the surface receiving the ink, often a sheet of paper, was usually relatively small in scale in order to fit into the press. The matrix was routinely inked and printed repeatedly, producing hundreds or thousands of prints that were identical in content. Although, by the late sixteenth century, collectors were able to discern qualitative differences between prints made from a new or much used matrix, and were willing to pay substantially more for the former, print scholar William Ivins was correct to point out that the fundamental importance of printed images was their status as “exactly repeatable pictorial statements” (1953).
Physical portability, existence in large numbers, and low cost in comparison to drawn or painted pictures have made prints a powerful means of bringing largely identical images to many people in many places. By the end of the fifteenth century, some thousand years after printing on paper began in China, printing in Europe was producing pictures faster and in greater numbers than had ever been possible previously. Since then, prints have had profound effects on how the socio-cultural world has been constituted and understood. Like printed texts (Eisenstein 1979), printed pictures led to a stabilization of certain codes, such as a shared vocabulary of classical architecture (Carpo 2001) or a common legal tender in the form of engraved bank notes. Prints have also offered a flexible medium through which civic, national, or religious identities around the Mediterranean basin, Europe, the Americas, and Asia could be constructed and contested (San Juan 2001; van den Boogaart 2003; Wilson 2004). For example, the chromolithographs produced in the 1880s by the Chitrashala Press in Poona, India, emphasized the martial prowess of Hindu deities such as Khandoba and Bhavani as a call to action to a wide and politically sensitized viewership then under colonial rule (Pinney 2004).
Prints could also be presented as a means to universal knowledge. The most extensively illustrated printed book of the fifteenth century, the Nuremberg chronicle (Liber chronicarum) compiled by Hermann Schedel, was organized as a year-by-year account of notable historical events in all the world then known to Europeans from Creation through the years just before its publication in 1493. More than 600 woodcuts from the workshop of Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, many printed more than once in the book to produce almost 1,900 illustrations, depicted biblical scenes, subjects from classical and medieval history, and a series of city views. Some of these views were distinct, recognizable representations (for example, Nuremberg, Venice, and Jerusalem), whereas others used the same image repeatedly to denote various cities (for example, a single woodcut was used to indicate the land of the Amazons, Alexandria, Athens, Pavia, and Prussia).
Another publication from Nuremberg demonstrates how the physical nature of prints allowed and even sometimes explicitly invited manipulation by its viewers. The Picture academy for the young (Bilder-Akademie für die Jugend) was published between 1780 and 1784 by Johann Siegmund Stoy as a volume of 52 engravings for children and two volumes of text for their teachers (Heesen 2002). Each engraving contained nine pictures, related thematically but drawn from different orders of knowledge, from biblical history to everyday life. Teachers were to start by presenting only one picture at a time, covering the others with a paper mask; alternatively, the nine pictures were to be cut apart, mounted on cardboard for durability, and stored in a specially constructed box, whose compartments mimicked the placement of each picture on its original uncut sheet. By taking the printed pictures from compartments, comparing them and replacing them to their proper places, children were prompted both to learn about the world and to organize that learning according to Stoy’s framework.
The arrival of Japanese woodblock prints in Europe in the early nineteenth century offers an example of the manipulation of printed material without such explicit authorial direction. Prints by Utamaro, Hokusai, and others were first brought to the Netherlands from Nagasaki, a Dutch trading center, as wrapping for parcels and stuffing for bales of merchandise being transported to Europe. Early Dutch officials stationed in Japan did collect woodblock prints as “native illustrations . . . of passing scenes” (Captain Sherard Osborn, cited in Stewart 1979), but a European recognition of Japanese woodblock prints as objects that communicated aesthetically rather than packing material flourished only in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Subsequently, these prints had a profound impact on many European painters including Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Claude Monet.
While the early Dutch merchandise packers in Japan and the children who used Stoy’s Picture academy remain anonymous, there is information about other individuals who materially manipulated the prints they collected, a practice that reached a high point in the sumptuously bound, multi-volume print albums compiled by the great connoisseurs of the eighteenth century (Griffiths 1994). Jacopo Rubieri, a fifteenth-century notary in northern Italy, collected prints during his travels, cut out or painted over parts of them, and glued them into his juridical notes. Anna Jäck, prioress of the Augustinian convent in Inzigkofen, collected prints along with hand-drawn pictures to paste into a manuscript book she completed in 1449. The German text, Sister Regula’s life of Jesus (Leben Jesu der Schwester Regula), was a manual intended to teach its readers to meditate by envisioning in the fullest possible detail scenes from Christ’s life and passion. As an external aid to this contemplation, Jäck collected 45 small images to paste beside the relevant passages. She began writing the manuscript only after obtaining all the pictures, which fit neatly into the blank spaces she had left in the columns of text. Jäck was concerned with neither the pictures’ makers nor the techniques used; rather she gathered pictures from different sources to communicate to her readers the types of images they could bring to mind during their devotions.
Stoy’s Picture academy and Anna Jäck’s meditation manual were aimed at specific groups of viewers. The Picture academy targeted children seeking to learn about history and the world around them, while Jäck’s manuscript was directed toward pious people in her community who sought instruction in devotional meditation. Prints were effective at mobilizing these and other types of knowledge for visual consumption by many different individuals; having interpellated these disparate viewers, prints could coalesce them into cultivated publics that could confront, contest, or accept a shared body of knowledge. In this way, they are a prime example of what Bruno Latour (1988) called “immutable mobiles,” things that allow one member of a community to make a claim that can be entertained by the community at large. Prints are especially effective at communicating visual information in order to bring together a public then able to make further cultural claims. For example, Marcantonio Raimondi’s print, Parnassus (c.1517), was not intended to reproduce the exact composition of Raphael’s fresco in the Vatican. Rather, the print’s message was that Raphael had made the picture: as the engraved inscription states, “Raphael depicted this in the Vatican” (RAPHAEL PINXIT IN VATICANO). The print’s sixteenth-century viewers were mobilized to form a public accepting that message and crediting Raphael with both the painted and printed Parnassus. That new public, brought together by print, established Raphael’s place in the history of sixteenth-century art (Pon 2005).
Marcantonio Raimondi’s print was an engraving, a particularly labor-intensive technique that involved cutting into the surface of the matrix with a sharp implement called a burin. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, the development of the technique of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century allowed the production of regular, eventually daily, news images in virtually unlimited numbers; this newly enriched traffic in printed images was a key factor the emergence of a public sphere. Photography and digital print production, developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, further accelerated the traffic in images available to the public and its various counterpublics. Whether Jürgen Habermas’s classic formulation of a well-informed, rational, and democratic bourgeois public sphere was ever actually achieved is debatable. But the power of prints to interpellate publics is clear from the struggles to control print production during the decades in which lithographs became widespread. In Paris in the autumn of 1830, Charles Philipon began publishing a weekly paper, La Caricature; this was soon followed by a daily journal, Le Charivari (Cuno 1983; Kerr 2000). Both publications contained collectible lithographs about contemporaneous events, often political in nature. The political caricatures, including a biting series on the recently installed constitutional monarch, Louis-Philippe, had by 1832 led to 20 seizures by government censors, some 6,000 francs in fines, and 13 months in prison for Philipon himself as well as the arrests of his publisher, his printer, and one of his artists, Honoré Daumier.
In response, Philipon used prints to bring together a politically engaged public as the Association for the Freedom of the Press (Association pour la Liberté de la Presse), which became better known as the Association Mensuelle Lithographique. Subscribers paid a monthly fee, and in return received a lithograph exclusively commissioned for them; the fees were to be used to offset any further court costs Philipon and his journals might incur. One of Daumier’s best-known lithographs, Rue Transnonain: 15 April 1834, was published in the last issue of L’Association Mensuelle. The print depicts victims of a massacre during the Paris riots of that month, killed in their homes at close range by French soldiers who believed a fatal sniper’s bullet had come from the building. By bringing this single, politically potent image to the subscribers of the Association Mensuelle in a detachable format suitable for framing, Daumier’s lithograph demonstrates how prints can be valued simultaneously for their aesthetic qualities and their power to form and inform communities.
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