José María Luna: “The engraving always”

The engraving and the graphic work aroused and still raise numerous very varied comments. Approaches which claim to apprehend the world of graphic arts according to historic perspectives, but also according to theoretic-technical visions where endogenous or reductionist questions abound. This contributes by no means to a rational analysis of the conceptions open to multiple hybridizations and the characteristic cross-fertilization of contemporary art, to which engraving or graphic arts could not remain foreign. However, and very fortunately, the initiative of the artists who cross the lines of the orthodoxy, and push the limits in an obvious process of creative innovation is recognized today as the most appropriate. We’ll come back to it later, but it seems necessary to make first a little digression on the origins and the evolution of engraving and of graphic arts.

During centuries, engraving played an essential role in the transmission of images, and thus of information. In our world and our society, saturated by images, by information to the excess, it is difficult for us to understand the vital importance the engraved images have had at some particular moments of our history. Nowadays, when someone goes out in the street, he has immediate access to more visual or written information than most of our ancestors ever had throughout their life. In a single day, we can see hundred times more pictures than people of the 15th century during their existence. It is thus not easy to measure how far the advent of reproduction techniques for images contributed to wider information spreading. It is true, and it is advisable to clarify it, that co-called democratization of the access to image which the engraving pretended to allow is not so real. We too often forget that the first illustrated books and prints (except card games, brochures for hawking, or rudimentary images of popular worship) were limited to a restricted number of persons to whom social origin, education or profession gave access to reading, writing and to getting the first opuses issued by printing offices, with mobile characters and illustrated with wood engravings. So that only part of the nobility, the upper clergy, academics and high civil servants were able to benefit of big prowills represented by the edition by printing office and the reproduction of the image thanks to xylography engravings, then to chalcography.

Engraving was thus a reproduction technique for images and signs;   signs and images which could be, besides, faithfully multiplied. This power gave to engraving from its origins, before the development of mobile letters in the 15th century, a major tool of communication. Thanks to its function of informing visually, its power of influence on thinking and on culture is indisputable. [1] This brought certain authors, like Juan Carrete, to conclude that history of engraving could be also « the history of its distribution, whether because of the realized editions, the places which it affected or because of the diverse and multiple functions which it assumed. » [2]

The first prints known in Europe were wood engravings dating the beginning of the 15th century, in content above all religious, most of them being simple ornaments in the first printed books. The wood engravings were used and used again in order to facilitate the reading. But these images, at first decorative, then began to play a central role, «and far from being a simple finery, became a fundamental element of the argument. » [3] From the 16th century, we can observe the frequent influence of the prints on the pictorial, at first wall compositions, and then in general. The influence of engraving on painting of the 17th century is clear indeed.[4] The proliferation of prints thanks to the generalized use of line-engraving techniques, to the detriment of the wood engraving facilitate the circulation of the models of composition. And, more important still, this accelerates the expansion of new artistic movements, and even new ideological movements. The first line-engravings seem to have come out of the workshops of Italian silversmiths, who engraved in the burin of fine furrows on a metal plate, then inked them and printed them to better assess the process of realization. This technique, called nielle, was then used by the Florentine silversmith Tommaso Finiguerra on his prints, which are the first line-engraving ones, characterized by intense parallel lines, closer when looking for shade effects. Because of its pictorial qualities, etching becomes the favorite technique of painters, whereas line-engraving keeps the favor of the engravers.

Durer, the German Master with a high technical control and with a sophisticated art, embodies the summit of engraving of Renaissance’s 15th century – his images, generally xylographic, allowed the distribution of models paradigmatic in the iconography of his time-. Rembrandt becomes the model and the reference for baroque engraving. While Rubens intends to benefit from commercial outlets offered by the reproduction of his most representative paintings, made in the workshops which he steers, Rembrandt blows up the yoke of traditional linear wefts to freely investigate the technique’s limits, to improve his personal expressiveness. Actually, he did not disdain the economic profitability offered by the reproduction of series, but he reached unmistakably summits in prints where the light played a leading role.

However, in the 17th century, books remain the main broadcaster of images. It is also the prints in books that familiarize us with the progress of science (medicine, botanic, etc.), by playing a major role in spreading new scientific knowledge. And so, facilitating an exponential acceleration in technical development, which then reaches its highlight in the “century of the Lights”, with the illustration of exploratory expeditions so appreciated by the scholars of that time. But it is also because of his educational interest that “enlightened men” then make of the print an essential tool in the transmission of new standards.

However, it is around the second half of the 19th century that engraving, mainly etching, then stops being a simple technique of reproduction to become an instrument of creation. The most standing precursor of this evolution is the brilliant deaf person from Fuendetodos, Francisco de Goya, who had the liberty to express himself freely, in creative   engraving, being able «to make observations, which commissioned works do not usually lead to, where the whim and the invention are not favored». Even if not really necessary, we don’t hesitate to mention his extraordinary series: Whims, The Disasters of the war, The Proverbs, The Ill-assorted or The Bullfight, where we perceive a new apprehension of the practice of engraving, freed from all the constraints of technical purity, finding new resources to serve an innovative aesthetic language, marked by social commitment.

From then on, the artistic prestige of engraving could only grow, strengthened by the commitment of numerous artists. [5] Among them, the painters of nature, and more particularly those connected with the so-called Barbizon school. It is at this moment that famous aquafortists’ groups appear. The previously unlimited publishing, repeated until the material exhaustion of the matrix, begins to be regulated. Publishing gets limited, editions are numbered in order to give to engraving a similar recognition to that of painting, with its status of unique work: the aura of uniqueness, about which Benjamin theorized. It was necessary to get rid of the 18th century conception Antonio Rafael Mengs had so formulated: « the work of the engraver is only a reproduction of technique, supplementary, therefore, the paint and the drawing. »

Engravers are divided, so to speak, in two very different groups: those engravers who reproduce and those engravers who invent or create. Those engravers in the sanctuary of technical orthodoxy of secrets and receipts of the workshop to produce works of interpretation or reproduction… and those engravers who are ready, not only to break the principles of technical purity, but also to look for new languages in which creation would not be any more hindered by purely technological standards. Consequently, it is artists, and not technicians, who practice engraving and introduce objects there appropriate for the cutting edge movements, which develop at the beginning of the 20th century, inexorably. The activity of the artists who make engravings is prolific and remarkable, as magnificently show the expressionists, notably Kirchner, Beckmann, Dix, Ensor or Munch. Without forgetting the efforts of Picasso, Miró, Braque and many others who found in the engraving a fertile ground for creation.

As in all the fields of creation, World War 2 provoked a rough break the most immediate consequence of which is the translation of the artistic avant-garde epicenter to the United States. So, engraving and graphic arts enjoy there a decisive impulse which is going to change their conception and their function. S. William Hayter transferred his famous Studio 17 from Paris to New York, teaching and spreading, through some of his co-workers and followers, his technical innovations and his conceptual processes. In the United States, in the 1950s, we witness a Print Boom, and studios such as Pratt Contempories (1956), Universal Limited Art Editions (1957) or Tamarind Lithography Workshop (1960) appear. Studios where artists such as Jim Dine, Chatter John, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg experiment and develop widely the principles of graphic arts. Also, Kenneth Tyler, in Gemini G.E.L. of Los Angeles, reluctant to the very trendy lithographic works of that time, collaborated to more complex editions, where technical hybridization and cross-fertilization are constant, with artists as Joseph Albers, Kenneth Noland, Roy Lichtenstein, Rosenquist or Frank Stella, to quote only few of them.

In Europe, this Print Boom arrived a little later and found its justification in plentiful serigraphic publishing of the English pop’s artists also, in those, more contained, of German neo-expressionists, who add to their taste for screen-printing that of photolithography and of Offset. The conceptualists and the Fluxus group also use the print and the multiple reproductions as a constituent of their social mission. In Spain, this graphic hatching only appears in the 1970’s [6], with initiatives as important as Grupo 15 or Polígrafa, and when are created the first galleries of engraving, notably Estiarte. Then happened what Antonio Gallego describes as a period of graphic exuberance. An exuberance which is going to last until the 1990s with the inauguration of the Calcografía Nacional, first museum dedicated to engraving and to graphic works, of the Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo, and of ESTAMPA, first international fair of  engraving and series works. All this is accompanied and completed by a multitude of publishing, new galleries, exhibitions, publications and, especially, of prizes and rewards awarded to engraving and to graphic arts. This hatching comes along then with the implementation and development of an unprecedented number of process, languages and graphic products, phenomenon associated to the introduction of electronic tools in graphic creation.

After this digression, inevitably brief, on the historic evolution of engraving and of graphic arts, let us address some theoretical and abstract questions in the current perception of engraving, which gave place to a bibliography which, without being plentiful, offer the biggest interest.

One of the first issues is the terminology, which lead to the publication of a Diccionario del Dibujo y la Estampa [Dictionary of the drawing and the engraving], published in 1996 by Calcografía Nacional and coordinated by Javier Blas. Let us notice, in the course of the present reflection, that we linked to the word engraving the second concept, that of graphic work. It is because, even if we usually apply, by extension, the name of engraving to all the prints, it indicates strictly speaking only what was made by incision directly or indirectly, lined or sculptured. However, according to Juan Mr. Moro, [7] « we can thus say that it is a historic term which took a wide and generic sense, and the relative ambiguity of which becomes blurred because it evokes above all a unifying principle associating the processes which compose the universe of the techniques of graphic reproduction, that of the existence of an image on a support or a matrix which allows its reproduction or its transfer on another support. » [8]

This terminology issue [9] is not a harmless affair, because it is in this aspect of engraving and its technological peculiarities, its mechanized and mechanist peculiarity, that many take argument to resist, sometimes desperately, to an extension, not to say a transgression of the limits imposed by the specificity of the graphic techniques. But it is also how those who laud the death of engraving find the most fertile argument. However, like those who formerly predicted the death of painting, those who augur noisily the death of engraving make a mistake… even if some of the “Taliban» of engraving and its mysteries seem sometimes resolved to give them reason. Engraving never stopped enjoying an adaptation process, of transformation to continue to fulfill its meaning function, as vehicle, as artistic expression of the new strategies of contemporary creation. Just like line-engraving replaced wood engraving, as lithography conquered its place in the world of the graphic impression and that the screen-printing became a “lingua franca» of all the artists of the last quarter of the 20th century, so the new media, wrongly named ‘new technologies’, quite naturally entered  the graphic world. Engraving and graphic arts, in a time of permanent technological expansion, cannot remain foreign to the continuous changes, in the ways to see things. New media and new manners which, by changing our glance, inevitably change the language, the languages. It is certainly in the spaces of hybridization, in the interstitial zones, in the transverse routes, on the borders, or in their dissolution, that the world of graphic art exists today. Because, as Javier Blas says, doubtless one of the most authorized voices in this debate, «graphic art is the most crossed by all the genres and this is one of its biggest virtues. » [10]

It is also interesting to listen to José Ramón Alcalá, one of the most prolific authors as for studying the “heterodox” wedding alliances between engraving and new technological processes. In fact, this activist defender of the new media, of innovative strategies, besides that it breaks naturally the limits imposed by the technique itself, recognizes that, even in what he calls the hegemonic processes of contemporary engraving, we can find cohabitations of suitability – to forge marriages, he says – with more traditional processes to endow the works of a series of artistic values, essentially bound to the tactile qualities, they would not have otherwise. [11]

Consequently, it is not extravagant to agree with Susan Tallman [12] when she asserts that « from 1960 until today, engraving moved from the suburb towards the center of the interest and of artistic production, by becoming a critical artistic shape insofar that some of the most crucial questions of modern art, notably can be formulated: its inclination to investigate the mechanisms of sense and of communication, the desire to reveal the processes by which an image is created, the will to investigate or to deal with the economic and social contexts in which art evolves, and the deep conviction that knowing the cogs of the reproduction of the image is essential to understand life and culture at the end of the 20th century. » We can deduct from this, at least one of the causes of the survival of engraving and of graphic work, after five hundred years of existence, and their full integration in the speeches of contemporary art, that in his turn also share many of the elements which define engraving and graphic work, as the capacity of serialisation, of accumulation or fragmentation.

It is this capacity of transformation, this power of adaptation to new circumstances from the former processes, which is doubtless the fundamental cause of survival of engraving, and of graphic work more generally, although it has as such hardly reason for existing according to the traditional terms of his definition, which were formerly inherent to it: matrix / support and impression, serialisation or multiplicity, which do not belong to engraving any more. Nevertheless, we continue to engrave. There are still exhibitions and competitions, biennial events and seminars, meetings and shows. Because, as said earlier, engraving did not die, no more than painting. Printing and graphic art can live with photography and its derivatives – video, cinema, television–, and also with the computers. They can make it alone or in arranged marriages.

And it will be so as long as there will be artists who have things to say, and who understand that the world of graphic arts can help them, in each of its processes, to elaborate their speeches, their strategies of creation. Because neither the ones nor the others are processes that exclude, because we can deliver a deliberate modern speech by using traditional techniques, or vice versa, outdated style and old fashioned style even by using the most innovative processes and the techniques. No matter the means, it is the message which is important. Certainly, nowadays it tends to be the means which constitute the message. I don’t intend to dispute it, but if somebody has something to say, he will always find a way of saying it. While the one who has nothing to tell will have difficulty in telling or in singing whatever it is, even with numerous means at his/her disposal. Because it is not about a sum of techniques and about closed processes, but about an inclination, about a conceptual work process based on a general principle of image transfer from a support in another (Martínez Moro). And it is therefore a question of investigating, of breaking, of merging and transgressing the limits, because the important is not how to create, but what to create.

And it will remain so as long as people are ready to listen to such messages without care for the process. And among these people are the collectors, the rare people in our country, through which, thanks to their generosity, we have access to contemplating our history through the images which time has accumulated, in this particular case, on paper. We can thus only thank Mr. Gelonch Viladegut who generously gathered –certainly with the patience appropriate for the collector– this important collection which, from Durer to nowadays, allows us to catch visually how and why engraving and graphic work, in their various techniques and through their various periods, continued until today as an absolutely modern and effective means of expression.

[1] The use of the ” images of paper » for a religious missions is a widely known and studied fact. To quote an example, we shall indicate that Fray Hernando de Talavera used them for the evangelization of the Moors in Alpujarras grenadines. Also, the missionaries used them for their apostolate in America.

[2] Carrete Parrondo, J., «El arte de la estampa», in Colección Rodríguez-Moñino-Brey. Printed Real Academia Española, éd. Fundación Cultural Mapfre Vida, Madrid, on 2004.

[3] Cf. Gallego, Has. Historia del Grabado in España, éd. Cátedra, Madrid, on 1990.

[4] Among the most famous studies, let’s quote those of the professor Pérez Sánchez, as well as those of his follower Benito Navarrete.

[5] Delacroix, Blake, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, …

[6] It does not mean a lack of dynamism in the world of the engraving, well studied by Antonio Gallego Gallego in his Historia del Grabado en España, published by Cátedra. This movement is very connected, on one hand to editions for bibliophiles such as Las Estampas de la Cometa, Rosa Vera, Tiempo para la Alegría… and on the other one to  the activities brought to a successful conclusion by groups as Dau al Set, el Paso and, especially, Estampa Popular.

[7] Martínez Moro, J., Un ensayo sobre grabado a finales del siglo XX, éd. Creática, Santander, 1998.

[8] For his part, Diccionario del Dibujo y la Estampa defines graphic art as being the various processes used by the artist to act on a support, leaving it his imprint – an image, a shape, a line, a color–, imprint susceptible to be transferred on another support, usually some paper, by putting in contact both surfaces by the pressure of a press, after inking of the first one of these supports or matrix.

[9] This issue of terminology explains the difficulty of access to a better knowledge of engraving’s complexity and of graphic art by the general public. It is what, as well as its multiplicity, is also the source of its prestige as work of art for those who underestimate the process and the processes, not only technical, but also abstract, which establish the genesis of a print.

[10] Blas Benito, J., « Especulaciones sobre la estampa (en siete actos) », in 10 años de grabado y edición de arte en la Escuela de Arte de Oviedo, éd. Escuela de Arte Oviedo. María Álvarez Morán (coord.), Oviedo, 2008.

[11] On this aspect, its article « El grabado actual: entre la artesanía y la guetonización », in the catalog of the second edition of Ingráfica (Cuenca, on 2009) is of the highest interest, as moreover almost all his papers.

[12] Tallman, S., The Contemporary print: from pre-pop to postmodern, quoted by Juan Moro.

José Maria Luna

Director of the Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo (Marbella)