February 2014 Newsletter: PRINTMAKING WITH PURPOSE

Broadside by Mexican folk-printer J.G. Posada from the collection of the Chicago Art Institute.
Broadside by Mexican folk-printer J.G. Posada from the collection of the Chicago Art Institute.

Paul Gauguin printed colorful rough woodcuts on his sojourn in Polynesia, Rembrandt van Rijn perfected the printing of crepuscular blacks from his carefully etched and engraved copper plates, Mary Cassatt explored rich pattern making and Japanese symmetries in her dry point/aquatints, Henri de Toulouse-Latrec played with his painterly style on the litho stone. We all know artists’ prints. But the artist was a late arrival at the printing press. The printing press was conceived with utility in mind: new efficiencies in document production. New possibilities for commerce and communication dawned with such potential.

The Virginia Arts of the Book Center has spent almost two decades exploring this revolutionary device. Many artists have come through our doors to experiment and play with printmaking. This opportunity for self expression on paper and in book making has reaped rewards for our entire community.

The printing presses of the VABC have served in other ways, have been called on for more utilitarian urges. To me one of the most straightforward uses we have found for our antique yet highly serviceable machines has been in the creation of broadsides. The broadside is the simplest printed object, a sheet of paper printed on one side. It received its name from that powerful naval fusillade because of its ability to communicate directly and effectively. They appeared in Europe simultaneously with the printing press. VABC resident artist Johanna Drucker has said:

“Broadsides served to entertain and to instruct and to foment subversive activity. Popular prints were circulated in sixteenth-century Germany and Holland as a way of shaping political opinion and fanning the flames of controversy.”

Indeed, our very society has been built upon the power of a single simple broadside, the Declaration of Independence. Printed by John Dunlap, printer to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; he and his craftsmen translated the barely dry manuscript signed by our colonial representatives into a typeset document literally overnight. The several hundred copies were sent up and down the east coast by horse and rider the next day. Printing offices in every community that received the document, replicated it again in additional newspapers and broadsides.  Before the internet, radio and TV, the broadside, this simple utilitarian object, was THE source of news. The newspaper, first as a “broadsheet” printed on two sides and folded was just an extension of the concept. Magazines were not far behind. One could even go so far as to say that the web page and blog are just electronic permutations of “printing” word and image on a simple sheet of “paper.”

For many years, the broadside’s effectiveness found expression for entertainment and commerce. Broadsides printed and spread the words of early songs and ballads, they reported sensational and often fictional stories about the notorious characters of their time. The serialized story probably began on a broadside and thus the novel was born. Even into the early twentieth century the broadside was a common form of communication. José Guadalupe Posada, a folk-artist printmaker in Mexico City at the turn of the century became famous for his use of Day of the Dead calaveras iconography (talking skulls and dancing skeletons) in his often satirical broadsides.

The VABC has found many uses for broadsides. Students from Sweet Briar College extended concepts learned here into a series of poetry broadsides raising awareness and funds for the Afghan women’s writers project. Beau Beausoleil in San Francisco enlisted our help in contributing broadsides to his Al Mutanabbi broadside project, memorializing the horrible bombing of Al Mutanabbi street, the ancient street of booksellers in Baghdad. This collection of broadsides has traveled to cities around the world and a set now resides in an Iraqi national library. Paul Moxon, self-appointed archivist of the Vandercook proof press (the twentieth-century letterpress our shop is built around), celebrated the centenary anniversary of the invention of this press with a set of one hundred broadsides by letterpress printers from around the world. The VABC proudly participated in this historic collection.

Poets and writers have found the broadside to be a convenient and affordable way to publish their work. Certainly a poem hanging on the wall with an attractive illustration is much more likely to be read and enjoyed than when squirreled away between cardboard covers on a book shelf. And the concept of adding image to poem is a marvelous continuation of an art form that is as old as ancient China, when the gentleman scholars, the literati, pursued “the three perfections” of poetry writing, calligraphy, and painting. Their works of art combining poem and image has inspired the simple response of fine printers today in publishing the creative work of poets alongside the graphic expression of visual artists.

At the University of Virginia, the Brown Broadside Program took advantage of the resources of the VABC to print broadsides for poets such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. And VABC member Kevin McFadden has used a broadside program to promulgate and celebrate the work of emerging poets through an annual poetry contest.

Join me in celebrating the broadside during this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, March 19-23. Many of the broadsides produced at the VABC may now be viewed in downtown Charlottesville at an exhibition in the New Dominion Book Shop.

The VABC will also share this simple art form with newbies and more experienced printmakers with a VABC class (Printmaking with Purpose) beginning Saturday, March 8 introducing the delight of creating these simple, utilitarian, yet often beautiful, prints.

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