Saturday, December 05, 2009

One day your prints will come

Seventy years of American printmaking are celebrated in "The American Scene", a British Museum touring exhibition which finishes at the Whitworth Gallery next weekend. Better late than never, I got around to seeing it on Friday. It's a fascinating alternate history both of American 20th century art, and American life during that period. I confess I know very little about printmaking - it sometimes seems a laborious process with debatable results, particularly in this day and age of mass reproduction, but there's also something inspiring about it, as whethers its a woodcut or a lithograph, there's both craft and art in the production and presentation. This exhibition makes you want to know much more of printmaking, because the end results are so uniformly excellent.

It acts as both history and art history because of the iconic nature of some of the images; many of which are familiar from depictions of 20th Century American life. It's primarily an exhibition of the urban, though not entirely, and the prints would have been distributed all across America. There's a visceral excitement of early 20th century pictures of illegal boxing bouts, or of overheated New Yorkers sleeping on their summer roofs, then there's a realism about ordinary life, that the more democratic form of the print made possible. As the century moves on the artistic as well as the documentary aspects of the prints become more important. I loved Hugo Gellert's "The Fifth Column", from 1943, its depiction of a rat and an American flag being almost "pop art" in its simplicity, and it was fascinating to see prints from artists like Pollock and Bourgeois who are usually known for other arts. The plates from the latter's "He disappeared into complete silence" with its surreal textual accompaniments were a particular joy. Text plays quite a part in the exhibition - including a Frank O'Hara collaboration - but so do the key art movements of the century.

Like "Angels of Anarchy" at the Manchester Art Gallery these are often small, delicate works, and it takes a while to see them properly under the protecting light. As an aside, I wonder if our remembered twentieth century, with its mass production, and its work appearing almost accidentally, in small galleries, or through limited editions, becomes harder to see because of this smallness? The religious art of the past was meant for the open space of the religious building; the public art of the late 20th century revelled in competing with the size and noise of modern life; "The American Scene" is a quieter documentation, but one that is no less revealing because of it.

No comments: