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The Language of Prints

The Language of Prints

Before computers and television, before telephones and the telegraph, prints were a method of communication that had an incalculable effect on human knowledge—as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention of movable type. This impact still resonates today at the Johnson Museum, where our print collection is extensively used to teach classes in all disciplines across the University.

For artists like Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya, the prints they made and distributed internationally both spread their fame and inspired connoisseurs to build important collections of their work. Prints could be an artist’s livelihood—a scenario that is still true today. More affordable than a painting, a single print can multiply visual ideas in anywhere from two to one thousand impressions.

A key aspect of making prints is the excitement of working with flexible media that encourage experimentation at every step of the process. While a print can be defined as any image offset onto paper from a permanent matrix, they are not merely reproductions. The choices of ink and paper, the determined pressure used to make the print, and the masterful combination of several techniques within one image have led artists throughout centuries to experiment widely and produce startlingly innovative results.

Before there was even an art museum to house it, there was a print collection on campus. The first extensive gift of art to the University came from William P. Chapman, Jr., Class of 1895, in the 1940s. This initial gift numbered over three thousand works on paper, with prints by Dürer, Rembrandt, Whistler, and Goya, as well as ukiyo-e woodcuts by Hiroshige and Hokusai. The gift was instrumental to the establishment of Cornell’s first arts museum, in the A. D. White House (now home to Cornell’s Society for the Humanities). Since then the collection has grown exponentially, thanks to the interest and support of Cornell’s many graduates. Today the Johnson houses over 22,000 works on paper, covering the intriguing diversity of most printmaking techniques—intaglio, relief, planographic, screenprint, and monoprint.

What is a print? Why do people make prints? And what are the tools they use to reproduce images, express ideas, or tell a story? These fascinating questions are considered in this exhibition of more than seventy prints from the Johnson’s extraordinary collection, curated with assistance from Johnson Museum interns Soowon Jo ’15, the 2013–14 Nancy and Stephen Einhorn Intern; Clara-Ann Joyce ’15, the 2014 Nancy Horton Bartels ’48 Scholar for Collections; and Christian Waibel ’17. The exhibition is also the focus of a Cornell's Adult University course this summer, “The Art of the Print.”

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints & Drawings, 1800–1945