PRINT March 1963



Felix Brunner, A Handbook of Graphic Reproduction Processes (Teufen, Switzerland: Arthur Niggli Ltd.), 1962. 329 pages.

IF ONE IS TO BUY A PRINT in today’s market with a reasonable assurance that he is not being cheated, he must carry his hand magnifier, and be prepared to understand what he sees through it. Which may involve a reasonably good grasp of details like this:

In the usual aquatint the unprotected parts of the metal are etched to a uniform degree. This causes an even grey surface in the print. In the hand photogravure technique, the gelatine relief prevents the mordant from biting to an equal depth everywhere, and thus produces half tones and shading. However, as the gelatin relief can be produced only by photographic means, a hand photogravure does not qualify as a work of original graphic art.

The language is terrifying, of course. Almost as terrifying is the black vista of endless accumulation of technical detail which is presented to the poor art lover, interested in making certain that the print he buys—and loves!—is truly “original graphic art.” For the hand photogravure is only one among many reproductive techniques which come up 4-F after their physicals. Consider the lithographic transfer. “A transfer,” says Mr. Brunner, “cannot be regarded as original graphic art.” Nevertheless, “In most cases, it is impossible to tell whether an impression was pulled from the original stone or from a transfer.”

The dilemma is created by the term “original graphic art,” which acquires importance from the point of view not of the artist, or even the art-lover, but the collector. It is all-important that in listing the conditions which a print must satisfy in order to qualify as original graphic art, Mr. Brunner does not list, or even refer to, fidelity to the original. The reason is, undoubtedly, that some prints by an unacceptable process may be more faithful to the original than some prints by an acceptable process. In terms of possessing a beautiful print this is all that should logically matter, but to the collector this is, at best, only one factor among many which are quite irrelevant to the beauty of the print. (For example, Mr. Brunner, in discussing one of his many beautiful illustrations, remarks that “This fine print by Picasso is unfortunately nothing but an offset print.” It turns out that Picasso had lithographed the drawing himself on zinc, and then allowed it to be printed by an offset process. The result is a fine print that is unfortunate.) The collector is interested in owning something unique—or as close to being unique as possible. It does not matter that the uniqueness can be determined only with the help of a magnifying glass, or a microscope, or sometimes not at all—he is willing to pay hundreds of times more for it than for its—on a macroscopic level—identical twin. He will also pay more for a bad drawing lithographed in a small edition by hand—original graphic art—than for a “fine print” that has been “unfortunately” reproduced by offset.

The situation reaches some absurd peaks of technical pedantry, esthetic hair-splitting, and financial snobbishness. It is no wonder that artists do not tend to cooperate with the chasers down of “original graphic art.” Like Picasso, they may allow their work to be run by offset, or refuse to number the copies, or sign blank sheets for technicians to fill with their designs, or snarl up the program with any number of displays of indifference to the problems of collectors and dealers. The problem of “original graphic art” is really subject matter for the psychologist—anal retentiveness and that sort of thing.

It becomes important to people who merely love beautiful prints when the “fine prints” that are “unfortunate” are offered at prices which collectors are willing to pay for “original graphic art.” It would be nice if at that point we could say to the dealer, “Look here, this is one of those ‘unfortunates.’ It’s very beautiful and we want to buy it for what it’s really worth in money. We just happen to have an electron microscope with us to prove it.” Then, those of us who enjoy beautiful prints could own them at proper prices, and those who enjoy “original graphic art” could own what they like, also at proper prices. The only way to begin to establish this division, unfortunately, is to acquaint ourselves with books like Mr. Brunner’s.

It is rough going. The text is thick, Germanic, unrelenting, full of information that is simply impossible to remember. Pretty soon we are confusing the copper engravings with the wood engravings, and, even worse, the engravings with the etchings, the mezzotints with the aquatints and, finally, all of them with forgeries. The illustrations are bountiful and extremely interesting, but we must list, on a separate sheet of paper, the pages on which they appear, as, the book lacking a list of illustrations, we will otherwise never find them again.

The book has enormous advantages, however, for the multilingual. It is printed in English, German, and French, side by side.

Philip Leider