With the invention of lithography and later photography, there were still plenty of improvements that could be made in to the printing process, but artists and art print masters largely had all they needed. Photo quality reproduction of their pieces was fully realised, freeing painters to paint rather than learn engraving techniques. Many artists still continued to work in specific print forms, but art was going through a period of huge change as the modern period emerged, and now that there was no longer a search for perfect techniques or shades of grey, artists started to think about prints in new ways.
The modern art period was all about rethinking convention and escaping tradition to explore other ways to express creativity and produce original art. Even with a lot of innovation around, some artists continued to see limited edition art prints purely as a way to reproduce artwork. Expressionist Edvard Munch’s well known print Madonna was largely a reworking of an existing painting.
Munch’s other best known print, Two Women on the Shore, hints at a development though; a search for specific aesthetic, with the simple woodblock technique used enhancing the feel of the artwork. In the past, the search had always been to push prints to a point where they could replicate traditional painting, but Munch and many other art print masters happily embraced very basic techniques like woodblock for aesthetics alone. Modern artists selected the technique that would most add to the atmosphere of their work.
The modern art focus on fresh aesthetics and context
This was very typical of modern art; a simple technique wasn’t frustrating for its limitations, but thrilling for the mood it could create. Kathe Kollwitz was a diversely skilled artist who similarly worked with woodcuts to create striking, savage, brutally bleak contrasts for her art print series war, while earlier works mixed etchings and aquatints for a more realist, grimy, and even cinematic feel. Picasso was another printmaker who used a huge diversity of techniques, just as he explored multiple approaches to painting, and more ideas were on the horizon in the pop art movement of the UK and US.
By the 1960s the idea of what could be art had been hugely redefined; almost anything could, and with that shift artists also wanted to rethink art prints, and how the aesthetic could be used. Roy Lichtenstein flipped everything around by taking the aesthetic of Ben Day dots and newsprint, and applying it by hand to his paintings; perhaps the ultimate embrace of the look of print into a personal style of artwork.
And then there was silkscreen printing and Andy Warhol, who built much of his work around exploring the idea of the mass produced, such as art prints, as the actual art. Sometimes this was explored through the creation of pieces that mirrored the packaging of modern consumable products; soup cans and distribution boxes, but he also created his own compositions, often utilising photographs, which were realised through the printing process.
Warhol brings the artistic and the iconic to the silkscreen art print
Many of the most well known pieces of pop art emerged from Warhol’s studio, one of the best known art print masters, with his iconic images of public figures like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Chairman Mao sinking deep into mainstream consciousness and fetching huge prices at auction. These original artworks were all created as prints, with Warhol and his team putting their time into making the silkscreen print templates rather than an originating piece. The team would then play with different colours on each individual print in a limited run.
It was a perfect expression of Warhol and pop art’s interests in consumerism, celebrities, and mass production. It embraced the army of craftsmen required to make a print precisely because it turned the whole process into a production line, rather than the traditional notion of a single artist working at an easel; in a nod to this, Warhol called his studio “The Factory”.
Print has continued to evolve, taking on digital techniques and specialist approaches such as lenticular art, but the modern artists’ fondness for all the things traditional artists found limiting in print represents a complete cycle for art prints, even as their original concept begins to move online into the world of NFTs.