Roger Butler’s Third Volume of His History of Australian Printmaking Documents a Radically Changing Art Form | Canberra time

what’s new, music-theater-arts, Printed: Images by Australian Artists 1942-2020, roger buter, national gallery of australia, nga, printmaking, australian printmaking

After a 33-year gestation period, Printed: Images by Australian Artists 1942-2020 by Roger Butler, the third volume in his Printed series, has finally seen the light of day. The previous two volumes in this series were published 14 years earlier and, three NGA Directors later and following Butler’s retirement as Senior Curator in charge of Australian Printmaking, this beautiful volume has arrived. This was always going to be the hardest volume to write, as it’s closest to us in time with many of the main cast members we know personally. This is also the richest period in our printmaking, both numerically and in variety, and while when approaching Australian colonial printmaking one can be quite comprehensive, here hard choices must be made about who to include and who to leave out. In art, when you write a history of the present, you invariably make personal value judgments, and if you do so with the authority of the NGA, your decisions carry added weight. Apart from issues of inclusion and exclusion, Australian printmaking since the Second World War has been radically altered by a number of seismic events – most of them very positive but at the same time quite fundamental. The advent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander printmaking had an enormous impact on almost every aspect of Australian printmaking and its acceptance, nationally and internationally. Australian printmaking has also shifted from a Eurocentric or America-centric tradition to one firmly rooted in Asia. Then there were the waves of technical innovation and while in the post World War II era there were still disputes over the use of photography in printmaking and the legitimacy of screen printing as a ‘art’, these have been overwhelmed by the challenge of digital strategies and the whole concept of a ‘bodyless or objectless impression’ that can exist as digital code and can never be printed on paper. This volume negotiates many of these questions and at the same time contains a large amount of empirical data on the workings of printmaking in Australia. As an art form, printmaking, unlike painting or drawing, often requires an expensive infrastructure with presses, studios, chemical facilities and exhaust fans. It is possible to make potato prints or screen-printed posters with relatively limited means, but etchings, lithographs, embossing and even digital printing generally require a well-equipped studio. team. Printmaking typically involves collaboration and infrastructure and much of Butler’s book involves documenting various print studios, printmaking companies, art schools and access studios with their frequent name changes and complex histories. and sometimes short-lived. Among the major art forms, engraving is the one most likely to change the moods of taste. If in the 1920s it was a tightly controlled “cottage industry” with a band of dedicated collectors, in the 1960s and 1970s printmaking became spectacular, diverse and popularly accessible and a desirable form of wall decoration. for suburban sprawl and for downtown living. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander printmaking revitalized the tradition in the early 2000s, and it’s safe to say there’s a new wave of popularity for printmaking in the COVID era, as many of us are from more and more confined to the house and seek to beautify our nests. What kind of book is printed? It is essentially an encyclopedic reference book on printmaking after World War II in Australia, mostly illustrated from the 37,000 Australian prints in the NGA’s collection. Roger Butler, as curator of this collection between 1981 and 2020, is an extremely learned individual who had the resources of the NGA at hand to carry out and publish much of his research. Invariably some of his value judgments will be questioned, some details will be corrected and some of the assumptions will be challenged, but this book and the two previous volumes form the bedrock upon which much of the subsequent research into Australian printmaking will be based.


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