Printmaking in Europe 20th and 21st century

The 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, for printmaking, are characterised by the rapid evolution of technology with an increasingly difficult answer to the question: What an authentic print is today? Printed images are everywhere available to the public following the development of offset. And we hear about an “artistic offset”. Moreover, years ago, artists understood that with traditional lithography – on zinc and printed in the offset press – and the new technique of screen printing, they can easily multiply, thanks to the photo-transfer of their works that the public likes, without the slightest interference on their behalf. Some of them sign and number them. But, are they original prints? This becomes more difficult to answer with the appearance of digital images.

Printmakers’ intense questioning and experimentation are much more positive. They continue using the techniques which are today traditional,  but they also create with the new ones – authentic screen printing and digital art – and combine various techniques and methods to create a print. At the same time, many of the most famous artists of the 20th century create prints and their works, that are signed and numbered, become envied objects for rich collectors. The social role of printmaking tends to disappear.

Posters – authentic prints, usually litho-graphs and screen prints, continue to play this role, from the lithographed posters of World War I to the actual authentic creations of young artists.

Before handing them over for the illustration of books, in the form of clichés, and subsequently of zinc offset, illustrators-printmakers create woodcuts or wood engravings, linocuts, engravings, lithographs, which become envied series.

Woodcutting and wood engraving are no longer privileged means of expression for printmakers, because of their demanding technique and the time-consuming and difficult process for rendering the colourful design with various plates and printing registration. However, important printmakers embrace this relief technique even in our days. With a strong rendering of contrasts and the purity of lines, woodcutting and engraving is one of the preferred means of expression of expressionists. 

Similar technique to woodcutting and wood engraving, linocutting, which was considered “the xylography of the poor” or “printmaking for students and amateurs”, appears in the early years of the 20th century and becomes the technique par excellence of printmakers committed to the service of people.

Intaglio printing remains in the 20th century, together with lithography, the technique embraced by most creators-printmakers. Even though the hard lines of the burin are not attracting artists, drypoint, with its velvet lines, and the etching methods, linear, tonal, soft ground etching, the various types ofaquatint, inkless intaglio printing (emboss), as well as the countless combinations of methods to create a work and the easy printing of a plate with various colours, fascinate printmakers.

At the end of the 19th century, Gauguin engraves wood for two marvellous series, the Noa Noa series and the so-called Vollard series, along with paintings with the same subjects. To this day, top painters and sculptors adopt printmaking where they find other artistic approaches to their themes, another language. Even though their prints differ from the works for which they are more famous, their style and authentic expression is the same. James Ensor and René Magritte in Belgium, cosmopolitan Wassily Kandinsky, Edvard Munch, Frans Masereel, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, all of them, at some point, are moving towards printmaking. Pablo Picasso, after a few woodcuts and vivid “fluid” aquatints for Tauromaquia, in 1954 discovers the language of monochrome or colour linocut, for strong and expressive prints with big solid colour surfaces and simplified lines. 

Marc Chagall, who repeatedly mentions Rembrandt as a painter-printmaker when he makes prints, talks about his fascination with printmaking: «When I hold a lithographic stone or a copper plate I think I touch an object with supernatural powers. It seems to me that I can put on it all my sorrows and joys, everything that I have experienced in the course of my life». Since 1935, he has been constantly creating series, a illustrator of books that will never be published, or much later. He creates the drypoints of his manuscript My Life, the etchings illustrating Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. For Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables and The Bible, he initially paints pictures with gouache, which are intended to be etched by professional printmakers. He ends up doing himself the etchings and aquatints since Vollard’s two publishing projects are not implemented. 

The Fables shall be published in Paris after World War II thanks to Stratis Eleftheriades, a Greek publisher from Lesvos, known as Tériade. However, the artist wants colours so he first colours some copies of his series with gouache and aquarelle. In the United States where he goes as a war refugee, he discovers the technique of lithography, which allows the explosion of colours that characterizes him. Lithography becomes the medium of expression of the printmaker, for marvellous series: The Circus, One Thousand and One Nights, Daphnis and Chloe... He also creates linocuts with the white-line technique. At the end of his life he creates some woodcuts, wood engravings and monotypes.

The list of painters-printmakers may not be exhaustive without Henri Matisse who created almost 800 prints in his whole life: a few relief prints, on wood and linoleum, monoprints, ink and sugar aquatints, and above all drypoints and etchings, as well as lithographs.

Throughout Europe, prints are born with traditional and new techniques. Gradually, their creators, who often are also painters, leave behind the artistic movements for a totally new personal expression, both figurative and abstract.