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Art print masters of the 20th Century

With the invention of lithography and later photography, there were still plenty of improvements that could be made in the process for creating art prints, but artists largely had all they needed; photo quality reproduction of their art, 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, 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, and new art print masters emerged.

The modern art period was all about rethinking conventions, escaping traditions and rules to explore what other ways there were to express creative ideas. Even with a lot of innovation around, some artists continued to see art prints purely as a way to reproduce other work; Expressionist Edvard Munch’s well known art 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 much of the feel of the artwork. In the past, the search had always been to push art prints to a point where they could replicate traditional painting, but Munch and many others happily embraced very basic techniques like woodblock seemingly for aesthetics alone; selecting the print technique that would most add to the atmosphere of their work.

The modern art print masters focused 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 and feel it could create. Kathe Kollwitz was a diversely skilled member of the art print masters who similarly worked with woodcuts to create striking, savage, brutally bleak contrasts for her art print series war; while the earlier Peasants War 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 paintings, but more ideas were on the horizon in the pop art movement.

By the 1960s the idea of what could be art had been hugely redefined; almost anything could be art, and with that shift artists also wanted to rethink the purpose of an art print, as well as rethinking 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 art.

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 art 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 print

Many of the most well known pieces of pop art emerged from Warhol’s studio, 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 artworks were all created as art prints, with Warhol and his team putting their time into making the silkscreen print templates rather than an originating piece of art. The team would then play with different colours on each individual print in a limited run.

It was a perfect expression or 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.

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