Prints on demand: Want to see my etchings?

Portland Art Museum, Michael Parsons Fine Art, and Augen Gallery offer a summer course in print appreciation


The question “Do you want to see my etchings?” was the Victorian version of the mid-twentieth-century “Would you like to come up for a nightcap?” which somehow has been supplanted by “Netflix and chill?” in the twenty-first century. Prints may have lost their footing as the go-to euphemism for sex, but the many examples and varieties of printmaking on view right now at the Portland Art Museum, Michael Parsons Fine Art, and Augen Gallery prove that they haven’t lost their allure.

Printmaking may not be the flashiest of art forms, even for connoisseurs of Victorian art. It rewards slow, close looking and an appreciation of technical processes. Prints are realized through an intermediary: The artist doesn’t manipulate the product directly but instead acts upon a matrix be this a plate, a stone, or a screen. The print is the product of the transfer of the matrix to a substrate, traditionally paper. The matrix can be used multiple times resulting in multiple impressions, and this potential for multiplicity makes printmaking so powerful, socially. Artists exchange prints. Prints enable the circulation of ideas, forms, and styles. Prints provide artists the opportunity to explore themes and ideas in a different format; many painters are also printmakers. Because prints are often conceived of as forming groups or suites, an artist can offer multiple ruminations on a single topic. Prints are for collectors. It is rare for someone to have just one: like humans they exist in relationship to one another, defined by the company kept and enriched by one another. In short, prints fuel art.

The Portland Art Museum exhibition “The Etchings of Whistler and his Circle” (through Nov. 26) brings together a lovely collection of etchings, so lovely in fact that I momentarily forgot that I was in a basement gallery. As with all printmaking, knowing the process aids in appreciation. In an etching, the artist makes the composition in a soft ground, typically wax, on a metal plate. The plate is then treated with acid so that the exposed lines are eaten away. Ink is rubbed into the incised lines and the printing process pulls the ink from the incisions to transfer it to the paper.

James McNeill Whistler, “The Lime-Burner”, from A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects, 1859, etching and drypoint on cream laid paper/Courtesy Portland Art Museum, Bequest of Winslow B. Ayer.

Whistler was instrumental in raising the profile of etching; he is credited with raising the cultural estimation and price point of prints and establishing them as a desirable vehicle of Fine Art. The exhibit at PAM displays not only Whistler’s virtuosity but also how influential his style was for contemporary and future printmakers. Whistler is known for his many series of prints of Venice, yet the Venice prints in the show are almost all from artists identified as part of his “circle”. Though I have a special love for Venice, the most memorable Whistler prints in the exhibition for me were from the series “Scenes on the Thames”. In The Forge, a group of increasingly shadowy and hastily rendered figures focus their attention on the pot-bellied oven in the corner. In The Lime Burner, Whistler depicts a figure leaning against a barrel framed by a ramshackle structure. The articulation of negative space is a hallmark of Whistler’s style.

Two blocks away from the Museum at the Michael Parsons Gallery, an etching by Whistler is available for purchase as part of the gallery’s “Master American Printers” show (through July 29). The Parsons show includes prints by locally and nationally recognized printmakers. While there is novelty in a work by a 19th century master available for purchase, the work by Whistler, Street at Saverne, is less arresting than the works at the museum and less intriguing than the other prints in the gallery. Part of the appeal of the Parsons show is its variety; it includes prints from multiple printmaking processes including lithographs, seriagraphs, etchings, drypoints, and woodblocks. The show also offers the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the rich history of printmaking in Oregon.

William Givler’s 1943 Oregon Coast demonstrates the strengths of lithography and the historical vibrancy of the local arts scene. In lithography, the matrix is a slab of limestone that the artist draws upon with a type of crayon or other greasy material. It is the most autographic of the printing processes in that one sees the “hand” of the artist most clearly. In Oregon Coastthe feathered ovoids of the scrub pines and splayed stalks of seagrass show the rapidity of impression facilitated by lithography. Givler was the dean of the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) from 1944 until 1973 and instrumental in creating a print community in Portland. Many of the printmakers in the Parsons Gallery Show, including Gordon Gilkey (whose vast collection formed the basis of the Portland Art Museum’s print holdings), Jack McLarty, Eunice Parsons, George Johanson, and LaVerne Kraus worked with Givler in some capacity. An portrait etching of Givler by LaVerne Kraus is included in the show.

William Givler, “Oregon Coast,” 1943, Lithograph/Courtesy of Michael Parsons Fine Art

Another noteworthy local contribution is William McIlwraith’s etching Home of the Forgotten Men from 1936. McIlwraith’s work depicts the Hooverville shantytown located in Sullivan’s Gulch during the Great Depression. McIlwraith spent much of his career as an illustrator, and this focus translates to the etching in his inclusion of tiny figures engaged in constructing or shoring up the haphazard structures. The line work of the freight train and coiled barrier trestle bridge in the background of the scene are hazy harbingers of the future of Sullivan’s Gulch as a transit (MAX, freight trains, and I-84) thoroughfare.

The Hooverville at Sullivan’s Gulch, near Lloyd Center. William McIlwraith,
“Home of the Forgotten Men”, Etching/Courtesy of Michael Parsons Fine Art

The “big names” in American art in the show include Thomas Hart Benton, Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir. There are two Benton lithographs both from 1945, White Calf and Loading Corn. Both show Benton’s regionalist style and signature sinewy limbs. Childe Hassam’s Cos Cob from 1915 is an intimate scene of a waterway in the artists’ colony of the same name. Cos Cob is an etching with drypoint, a process in which the artist incises directly into the plate after it has been treated with acid. The forceful incision builds up a burr on either side of the incised line that holds more ink resulting in a richer printed line. The Cos Cob impression confirms the delicacy of this process. The J. Alden Weir etching Boats at Low Tide – Isle of Man from 1889 showcases the artist’s facility with manipulating the plate to create the mottled sky.

The summer print smorgasbord continues at Augen Gallery with prints by superstar Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro (through July 29). Both artists were prolific printmakers: Picasso was known for his etchings, lithographs, and linocuts; Miro, primarily for lithographs.

Pablo Picasso, “Bacchanalia”, 1959, reduction linocut/Courtesy Augen Gallery

Picasso’s reduction linocut Bacchanalia of 1959 captured my attention immediately upon entering the gallery. Reduction linocut is a relief process (like a woodcut) that uses linoleum blocks. Typically, multicolor prints require individual blocks for each color. With a reduction linocut, however, the artist uses the same block and “reduces” the block by cutting away the sections that have already been printed. The story is that Picasso pioneered this printmaking method because he was too impatient to wait for prints to dry between colors as would be required with the traditional method. It may say something about me that this display of impatient artistry is one of my favorites at Augen.

One of Picasso’s early forays into printmaking is at Augen: Femme Au Miroir from 1922 is a small drypoint image (7 x 5 1/8 inches) that was only printed in an edition of 25. The small edition size contrasts sharply with his later prints that were in high demand and produced in larger editions. Minotaure attaquant une Amazone, for example, is from the Vollard Suite, which was printed in an edition of 250 only 15 years later. Much of Picasso’s considerable print oeuvre is divided into groups. The Vollard suite is a group of 100 prints that Picasso made between 1930 and 1936. It is named for the painter and print champion Ambroise Vollard, who accepted the prints in exchange for several paintings he had given Picasso and who published the prints in 1939.

Joan Miro,
“Fashion Frenzy”, 1969, lithography/Courtesy of Augen Gallery

Several of the Picasso prints at Augen are from Suite 347 and Series 156, two groups produced only a few years before the artist’s death. These late prints are often dismissed as an example of the artist “resting on his laurels.” As one of the masters of the 20th century, the octogenarian Picasso surely had earned the right to do this. But, though the composition and iconography of the 1968 La Celestine Poursuite recalls the 1937 mural Guernica, the print still attests to Picasso’s formidable invention and skill.

The Miro prints at Augen are all from the latter part of the artist’s career in the late 1960s through his death in 1983. Miro is perhaps best known for his paintings associated with Surrealism in the 1920s. Harlequin’s Carnival (1924-1925) and Spanish Dancer (1928) are standard Art History textbook fare. The biomorphic variant of Surrealism that Miro is known for abounds in these lithographs. There are figures to see, but they are only vaguely reminiscent of actual creatures: eyes, claws, awkwardly contorted limbs. Two prints stood out in the Miro section of the show. In the 1969 lithograph Fashion Frenzy a triad of bizarre entangled figures, articulated only by broad, gestural brushstrokes, is superimposed on a fabric pattern of Miro’s invention. L’Exile Vert from 1969 is a color etching with a giant, green oval head resting on a black horizon. The charm is undeniable though I can’t decide whether the figure is friendly or menacing.

This conversion of print shows may have been accidental, but together they make a delightful print appreciation month. And maybe it will occasion more invitations to attic apartments and print collections, real or imaginary, waiting there.

2 Responses.

  1. Briana Miller says:

    The “High Art of Hand-pulled Printmaking” show at the Collins Gallery at the central branch of the Multnomah County Library is a great complement to all of these. The exhibition goes into the tools and techniques of printmaking processes and includes pieces–and all the implements used to make them–by well-regarded contemporary regional artists. The concentrated show is on view through 9/3.

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