Technology & Sociology
Originally coined by the Greeks, the undisputed masters of analytical terminologies, to denote the methodic employed in vase painting that involved the act of engraving (incising) a surface (clay), today the term Graphic is loosely used in an all encompassing sense to describe both the in-lines-rendered usually monochrome visual depictions of objects, forms and symbols, wherein the depth of field is independent from tonal variations, as well as to describe, even if paradoxically nullifying the former usage, the creation of visual objects associated with tonal scales or even color renditions. This kind of classification however does not highlight the peculiar characteristics of our subject matter. Keeping this rather amorphous usage in mind, it seems to me to be therefore appropriate to distinguish the three main classes in which Graphics could be probably less confusingly divided for our purposes. This distinction may not be valid in a purely technical sense, but it makes sense, when we lay emphasis on the motivation behind this human endeavor, and more so as far as the distinguishing features of the works of the great masters are concerned. And Rembrandt is generally regarded as one of the all time greats in this field.
We hope our classification will also highlight the commercial and the purely artistic aspects of this field of human enterprise.
We may rightly divide Graphic into following three main categories.
- Mass Products. Works which can be mechanically, chemically, electro-magnetically or digitally reproduced. Here the conditions for a specific mode of production are generally completely repeatable and the reproductions do not differ from one another. Most of these works possess a primarily if not intrinsically a commercial feature. In foregoing epochs, no doubt they may have had an institutional and educative aspect, but since in our own times the institutional and educational products are becoming more and more dependent upon market demands rather than institutional and government subsidies, much of the output here can be viably relegated to the commercial realm, which however does not mean that they are not educative. The only true exceptions here are the works associated with political or religious ideologies, which are generally mass produced with explicitly non-commercial intent. However a new tendency to de-commercialize the mass-production of artworks, especially the literary is evident in our century of digital reproduction, exemplified for instance amongst others by the free distribution of works by Project Gutenberg (primarily text works) and works published _ and they do include graphics _ under Creative Commons License, as well as the works issued by the open source community. Their commercial use is however, in most of the cases quite often associated with fees and as such though non-commercial in intent, they are not always completely non-commercial as far as their distribution is concerned.
- Unique Works. Works which are unique and specific to their creators or producers. Here the specific conditions for the mode of production are not repeatable as they generally involve the personal stil of the artist. A 100% copy of the original is probably an impossible feat, if one is dealing with more than one line. Even a freely drawn line or a brush stroke copied from an original work would not be exactly same, if you cared to look closely or through a loop or a microscope. Not being able to distinguish the fake from the original is due to lack of our know-how at present or just a failure in assessment. It is irrelevant here to discuss, which one of any two similar looking artworks is original, which one of the two hangs in the gallery and which of the two ought to or which one is better or genuine, the fact is they wont be 100% similar. In this category we can therefore put all works which are unique in this sense, including the drawings of the old masters, that generally served as mere studies for paintings, drawings per se, whether on paper or other media. Sinopies used in Italian frescoes of the Renaissance, may also be considered as unique. They are primarily non commercial in intent. Commissioned works especially for illustrations for books or periodicals may sometimes appear to be commercial. But that is not necessarily so, because when we choose a particular artist for some commercial project, we usually are interested in his/her method and stylistic nuance or more important his/her artistic vision, not the demands of the market, which may or may not tally with the product. Graphic works commissioned for technical treatises or science are often also a tribute to the know-how of the graphic artist and as such not commercial, as they involve the demands invoked by a specific subject and not those catering to a market trend. However commissioned graphic works done with purely commercial intent, and there are lot of them around, are easy to recognize. Eh! They really do like mass products!
- Limited Editions. This category occupies the niche between the two aforementioned domains. The works in this category are both unique like the etching plates and yet reproducible like the prints there from. Mechanically or through other modern technological know-how mass producible, they may generally involve a bit more manual labor compared to the popular widespread low-priced modern electronic and digital processing. However because of just this potential for their mass productions they are deliberately reproduced in limited numbers, to avoid their falling into the first category. This may have varied reasons involving their commercial value as object of barter or the intensity of labor or the wish not to downgrade their aesthetic appeal or sometimes due purely academic reasons, as they cater only to a specific audience or a group of professionals. They may also involve a variation of the conditions of their mode of production
With Limited Editions we are invariably drawn into the realm of commercial gimmicks, almost imperative for the modern artist to achieve success in media-ruled market-economy world.
- A photographer plans a photo session in which he lets himself be driven through the streets of a modern metropolis along with his model, who is currently the local Baal or in
modern jargon a craze or celebrity of the community or the boulevard newspaper of the nation or the heroine of some glamor magazines or according to their opinion the beauty of the so-called world, where more than 75% of women have never ever been photographed. He takes pictures of this lady from beneath her seat, from right side, then from left side, then from 45% angle, then with hair blowing in the wind and so on ad infinitum. Now these are not studies in motion or light or perspectives but studies in cult, ritual and myth _ the myth of the celebrity and are moreover pro-commercial. The most important aspect of such professional work, is the almost obsessive preoccupation of their authors with copyrights and the strategically artificial enhancing of the barter (predominantly monetary) value of the limited editions. They unlike the labor intensive reproduction of Rembrandt's etchings are made almost automatically, quite often with hi-tech gadgetry. But, and this is interesting, here the labor although not technically imperative is nevertheless intentionally created. Along with the artificially enhanced labor here we see also the vestigial remains of ritual associated with a cult. The more complicated the procedure, the more ritualized the depiction, the more meaningful the local god and thus its reproduction. They are as easily disposable as any local gods in ancient times and are often irrelevant to posterity. No doubt some real great photographers, who can claim to be artists in the real sense of the term have occasionally involved themselves with famous personages, but there is no cultism in their artistic aspirations.
No doubt some of the works of Rembrandt, like the etchings of a woman with and without stove have been classified as commercial gimmicks by some and some have even claimed, that it was Rembrandt who first formally introduced them into the European art scene. I have gone a bit more into this in my appraisal of his works: The Rembrandtian Credo. I might however add here the fact that his woman with the stove was not a celebrity, and that some of his models belonged to the lowest levels of our still existent human class divisions and most of them were not necessarily what one might call glamorous, oozing Paleolithic sex-appeal, but first as foremost as full fledged human beings, irreducible to any one singled out property. That of course is the greatness of Rembrandt, which hardly any one has been so far able to emulate with such dedication. Understandable of course, a universal genius with a vision of such high caliber, would always have his eyes open for the millions sharing our planet instead of succumbing to a cultic or commercial fixation on a from-few-choosers chosen cult or hard-cash icons of the times. And his studies of human beings were just that: Studies _ the greatest compliment that a true artist can get! And here Rembrandt is a towering giant of all ages!
- A photographer plans a photo session in which he lets himself be driven through the streets of a modern metropolis along with his model, who is currently the local Baal or in modern jargon a craze or celebrity of the community or the boulevard newspaper of the nation or the heroine of some glamor magazines or according to their opinion the beauty of the so-called world, where more than 75% of women have never ever been photographed. He takes pictures of this lady from beneath her seat, from right side, then from left side, then from 45% angle, then with hair blowing in the wind and so on ad infinitum. Now these are not studies in motion or light or perspectives but studies in cult, ritual and myth _ the myth of the celebrity and are moreover pro-commercial. The most important aspect of such professional work, is the almost obsessive preoccupation of their authors with copyrights and the strategically artificial enhancing of the barter (predominantly monetary) value of the limited editions. They unlike the labor intensive reproduction of Rembrandt's etchings are made almost automatically, quite often with hi-tech gadgetry. But, and this is interesting, here the labor although not technically imperative is nevertheless intentionally created. Along with the artificially enhanced labor here we see also the vestigial remains of ritual associated with a cult. The more complicated the procedure, the more ritualized the depiction, the more meaningful the local god and thus its reproduction. They are as easily disposable as any local gods in ancient times and are often irrelevant to posterity. No doubt some real great photographers, who can claim to be artists in the real sense of the term have occasionally involved themselves with famous personages, but there is no cultism in their artistic aspirations.
Mass Products, i.e., the works from the first category are as old as the seals of the Sumerian or those from the Mohenjo Daro and may have precedents reaching far back in prehistory, when ideograms first came into use. No doubt easy reproduction of the objects, especially the ideogram, the phonetic symbols and diagrams as well as legal manifests including the commercial use of such representative objects in barter and trade must have been one of the major reasons for the development of graphical technologies in ancient times.
Similarly book illustrations for religious and educative purposes drove the technology onward. In fact book illustrations would become so popular in ancient Egypt, that later in 18th Dynasty1 the walls of the royal tombs would be decorated with frieze that created the illusion, as if the walls were a long papyrus rolls, depicting scenes derived from the popular illustrations from the Book of the Dead.2
A convergent evolution seems to have occurred in with the rise of Christianity in Europe. Instead of the papyrus rolls with illustrations from the Book of the Dead, you had the codex, the book of pergament pages, equally religious in orientation and which would become quite popular as people started using prayer books during the decades, when Christianity would spread to the far reaches of this most dynamic continent on the planet.
A modern person will probably find the exuberant visual ornamentation of some of the illustrative work of the pergament manuscripts of the period as rather quaint. But by being less constrained compared to book printing later, they may have lead to a wide spread experimentation with scripts and fonts. No doubt some of the achievements here probably left their mark, in varied fields ranging from script or letter-head, styling, musical notations, logos to a more social oriented legacy like the institutional official seriousness conveyed through visual and lingual specialization, still extant in some of the certificates or declarations and manifests of even the modern institutions and corporations. Some of them, including the older book printing look all very official and formal even when they are only partly sacred or even when they deal with the profane. Quite often the technical, aesthetic and functional aspects here are used in service of a formally and symbolically enhanced legitimation, in order to convey a sense of authority, with a potential to act on a collective usually archetypical level.
However more in tune with artistic endeavor even if slightly decorative in function are the book illustrations meant for educative purpose, the sciences, fine arts and literature. A classical example is the one from Vesalius: De Humani Corpris fabrica libri Septem from 16th century Italy. Here the aesthetic and functionality are interwoven in service of the pure great European Enlightenment.
Ever since photography and digital graphic replaced much of illustrative graphic in great many books, journals and scientific treatises, the person doing congenial illustrative work today is quite often and appropriately referred to as a graphical designer. It has been quite wrongly claimed however that the age of original book illustrations, that do not come from the mechanically or digitally reproducible mass-production rooster or photo-, video- and computer-labs are over. Quite the contrary, the work consisting of drawings of hundreds of animals of signori Sergio & Lorenzo Orlandi (1983 Istituto Geografica De Agostino S. p. A., Novara) is just one example from recent times. And what original art! How dynamic the renditions! Even some great photographs of National Geographic pale in comparison when compared to the expressive force emanating from many of their drawings. They can hold their own against some old masters, even surpassing some!
I could also be accused of thinking negatively about the fate of traditional Graphics. Although I did have some, admittedly by no means desirably sufficient, formal training in varied branches of visual arts, amongst others also at the Academy of Arts at my birthplace Srinagar in India, at an relatively early phase in my life, where I did learn some lino-cutting, I however had absolutely no first hand acquaintance of etchings, till much later in Europe at an rather advanced age. Frankly despite the great admiration that I had for certain etchings, I was never much inclined to learn it. I did not see as a medium to express anything innately new. In my opinion it been perfected and given full expression by the great masters. Especially illustrations, some of them from masters in their professions, for the Bible, Alice in Wonderland and some middle-age sagas of Europe and fairy tales, have left an undeniable acute long-time impressions in my memory, ingrained in my childhood that photography could never rival. But it is a laborious enterprise, and for modern times, certainly not economical. Moreover, considering the present technically very advanced stage of printing, evident in press and publications of our decade, the technologies used, though less laborious, efficient and more realistic are however very expensive and not necessarily within the reach of an individual artist. That may also explain the fact, that apart from a some merely academic pursuits and some specific extant book illustrations, most if not all of traditional disciplines in this field have been firmly entrenched in highly specialized commercial professions. In fact almost all of the disciplines, subsumed under this term have been progressively relegated to applied arts or professional commercial printing. Some of the traditionally more dedicated art produced here till recently, seems to have now left the abode of the individual artist atelier and private studios and found its way into commercial industrial design and utilitarian art, quite often associated with mass production. The aesthetic apparently now resides more in the fact, of how a room or a certain specific place looks like, when decorated with a certain piece of graphical artwork, rather than what it expresses. Besides this decorative aspect, graphic art is increasingly serving the industry for varied reasons, including that of enhancing corporate image, political or professional ideas or in merely serving to explain the use of a product or a gadget or the web site.
The function being mainly or almost solely illustrative and decorative, it should not surprise one that Graphics has achieved more the status of an applied art, rather than art for its own sake. This makes naturally the graphic works of old masters, especially Rembrandt even more unique and one more appreciative of the fact that much of the basis of the technology employed in Graphics are also products of the achievements of amongst others some individual artist, like Dürer. In tune with this phenomenon, it is not surprising to witness the fact, that much of potential talent in this field nowadays tends to be invariably drawn toward Cad, 3 D animations and robotics, all within the industrial domain and toward illustrative art for science fiction or fantasy literature or comics, most of which too are mass produced and therefore also industrial in a sense. Unfortunately however aesthetic or individual specificity of expression is not and can not be the credo here. Many of these works display elements of Pop Art, reminiscent of the graphic one sees on flippers and play stations, and most of them, no matter how realistic or fanciful, intrinsically lack that often sublime, specifically reflective expression, so evident in etchings of the old masters, like Rembrandt.
- an innately personal encounter with his works, that was not a result of any suggestion from a third party nor forced down my throat during my upbringing and least of because of it being an academic prerequisite in my career.
Mushtaq Bhat 1988
Etching 11.5 x 8.9cm.
After: Rembrandt 1645 (mirror image)
I did not consider the traditional Graphics as a medium for my own artistic aspiration, nevertheless the etchings of Rembrandt made me curious. It was certainly not the tangibly aesthetical, historically chronicled and poetically praised quality of Rembrandt's graphic nor their sensual-, symbolical- or religious-associations that drew me to his graphics but something that may appear to others as banal. It was mainly his technique. I was passionately curious to know how he achieved some of his dynamic stillness in his graphic works. They are serene and explosive at the same time. Exploding events within the perceptive landscape of those as ever and always empathetic eyes! No I was not interested in etchings at all, nor remotely wishing to reproduce pedantically any one his works, but just to catch, even if a fleetingly, a glimpse of the methods that he had employed. It seems that not all his technical know-how nor his some ground-breaking techniques here, were disclosed to public or his students, but they are generally well known now. I was nonetheless curious to sort of discover and try out for myself some of this technique. An almost magical pull emanating from his works. However I did not actively follow this wish, at least not deliberately, but later living in Berlin, I did attend some classes in etchings at the folks school in Kreuzberg, with probably only this aim at the back of my mind and then, a few years later all of a sudden I had really the opportunity to attend a workshop of Jan Boomers from Netherlands. It was he, who not only revealed to me some of the intricacies of Rembrandt's graphic works but also increased my appreciation for Rembrandt the more. Although after attending this workshop, Rembrandt's graphic works lost some of their mystery and magical charm associated with my childhood, I began to appreciate his work more for that, which is probably also the reason for writing this article.
Jesus & Rembrandt
Etching 17.8 x 21cm. 1988
After 3 Etchings of Rembrandt
1) Descent from the Cross (1633)
2) The Hundred Guilder Print (1649)
3) Raising of Lazarus (1632)
No doubt my overall appreciation for Rembrandt is to no small extent due to his original way of using his techniques, to present us his innovative humanistic ideas, like his rendering of innately human suffering of Jesus. In that, that Jesus is more like a human being, as displayed unambiguously in his work, where Jesus is being taken down from the cross, and wherein he does not exhibit any godly transcendence but a from mortal wounds contorted and from earthly natural-laws (gravity) bent body, Rembrandt was not disqualifying Christ's godly nature but I assume, revealing his nearness to us humans. This is my opinion. It may or may not be true, but it sure is consistent with my general view about Rembrandt, expressed in this article and I am inclined to believe, well supported, even if not explicitly declared by Tümpel's Monograph, that Rembrandt was a visual messenger of a new age and certainly not a rebel and least of all a heretic. True he did not make a pilgrimage, as recommended by Huygens, to a drawing school in Italy (or was it Oxford, Harvard or Singapore?) but he kept the original works of the mentors of the great schools of the time at home. He did not need to. They were with him! He did not need an interpreter, but could enter directly into communion with them, within the free from learned-disputes and current trends atmosphere of his home and studio. No he was not a rebel. And yes, Jesus appears almost intimately close to humans in his art! For a humanist like Rembrandt, it would appear to be but an obvious natural fact of creation.
Mushtaq Bhat 1988
Aquatinta. 15.4 x 9.8cm.
After: (etching) Rembrandt 1643 (mirror image)
- 1 18th Dynasty. 1532 B.C.E. - c. 330 B.C.E.
Encompassing the mind-boggling period corresponding to almost the whole of the antique Greek Civilization, ranging from the development of Linear B script to Alexanders conquest of Egypt!
2 Ernst Fahmüller: Zeichner in Ägypten
published in: Das Große Lexikon der Graphik
Georg Westermann Verlag GmbH. Braunschweig 1984.