Sara Woodbury, McDermott Curatorial Intern for American and European Art, recently organized an installation of prints for the Works on Paper gallery on the Museum’s second floor. Cross Cultural Dialogues in European and American Landscapes features landscapes from the 19th and 20th centuries that demonstrate artistic influences occurring between Europe and America. The show also highlights different printmaking techniques. We’d like to explore a few of these methods here, and also share a behind-the-scenes look at how works on paper are stored and cared for at the Museum. All of the prints you’ll see here are included in the installation, so be sure to check them out in person next time you visit the DMA.
Artists use a variety of printing techniques, but we’ll highlight just three methods here: woodcuts, etching, and lithography.
Woodcuts are recognized by their linear quality, reflecting the laborious process required to make them. An artist draws onto a block of wood, and then all of the wood surrounding the drawing is carved away, turning the design into a three-dimensional relief. These raised lines are coated with ink, and the block is pressed to a piece of paper, printing the image. The oldest known printing method, the woodcut developed in Europe around 1400. It became less popular as easier printing techniques emerged, but many 20th-century artists embraced the medium’s bold, linear character.
Another interesting technique is etching, which is similar to drawing. To make an etching, an artist draws with a tool called an etching needle onto a metal plate that has been coated in wax. Next, the plate is submerged in an acid bath, which corrodes, or “bites” into the exposed metal lines, leaving the wax-covered areas unaffected. The plate is then rinsed, covered with ink, and wiped down. The ink remains in the grooves of the etched lines, and the plate is ready for printing. Etching first appeared in the 16th century and became especially popular during the 17th century. It also experienced a resurgence in popularity during the late 19th century, a period that has become known as the Etching Revival.
Lithography was invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder and was initially used for commercial images. By the late 19th century, however, artists had begun exploring lithography’s creative possibilities. Lithography accommodates a wide range of styles, making it an ideal medium for the stylistic variety that characterizes 20th-century art.
Behind-the-Scenes with Registrar Anne Lenhart
Did you know that works on paper–including prints, drawings, photographs, and other types of work–are stored and cared for differently than paintings and sculptures? Works on paper are sensitive to various conditions and must be handled with special care and attention. We asked Anne Lenhart, Assistant Registrar, to share insight into how the Museum stores and handles its large collection of works on paper.
What DMA department is responsible for handling prints?
Anne: The care and handling of prints is a shared responsibility between the curators, registrars, conservators, and preparators. The curators are responsible for choosing the works on paper for installations and exhibitions. Once the works on paper are chosen, the registrars, conservators, and preparators are responsible for making sure the prints are in good condition and ready for installation.
Where are the prints stored in the Museum? How are they stored?
Anne: All of our objects are stored in secured art storage spaces. These areas, which have limited staff access and are monitored twenty-four hours a day, have a consistent temperature of 70° Fahrenheit (+/- 2°) and 50% (+/- 5%) relative humidity. Because paper is susceptible to even small changes in humidity (think about what happens to a sheet of paper when it contacts a drop of water), we try to be especially vigilant in terms of how we store our paper collection.
These numbers are considered guidelines for very stable pieces, such as those created with carbon-based ink applied to a good quality rag paper. Objects that are less stable—where the pigment and the materials are of lower or unknown quality or in the case of color photographs (especially Polaroids)—are exhibited for shorter periods of time.
How long can prints stay mounted in the galleries?
Anne: The general rule for exposure of works on paper is one to three months, and we try to keep the maximum period of time any work on paper is on view to less than six months. After a work comes down, we usually do not reinstall it for eighteen months so that it can “rest.”
Cross Cultural Dialogues in European and American Landscapes is on view now, and we hope to see you soon at the Museum.
Sara Woodbury is the McDermott Curatorial Intern for American and European Art, and Karen A. Colbert is the McDermott Education Intern for Teaching Programs.