After a gestation period of 33 years, Roger Butler's Printed: Images by Australian Artists 1942-2020, the third volume of his Printed series, has finally seen the light of day. The two preceding volumes in this series were published 14 years earlier and, three directors of the NGA later and following the retirement of Butler as the senior curator in charge of Australian printmaking, this handsome volume has arrived.
It was always going to be the hardest volume to write, as it is closest to us in time with many of the principal actors known to us personally. It is also the richest period in our printmaking, both numerically as well as in variety, and whereas when addressing colonial Australian printmaking one could be fairly comprehensive, here difficult choices need to be made as to whom to include and whom one would leave out. In art, when you write a history of the present, you are invariably making personal value judgements and if you do this with the authority of the NGA, your decisions carry additional weight.
Apart from questions of inclusion and exclusion, Australian printmaking since WWII has been radically altered by a number of seismic events - most very positive but at the same time quite fundamental. The advent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander printmaking has had a huge impact on almost every aspect of Australian printmaking and its acceptance, nationally and internationally. Australian printmaking has also reorientated itself from a Eurocentric or American-centric tradition to one firmly located in Asia. Then there were the waves of technical innovation and whereas in the period following WWII there were still squabbles over the use of photography in printmaking and the legitimacy of the screenprint as a 'fine art', this has been swamped by the challenge of digital strategies and the whole concept of a 'body-less or object-less print' that can exist as a digital code and may never be printed as a hard copy.
This volume negotiates many of these questions and at the same time accommodates a vast amount of empirical data about the nuts and bolts of printmaking in Australia. As an art form, printmaking, unlike painting or drawing, frequently requires an expensive infrastructure with presses, studios, facilities for chemicals and extractor fans. It is possible to make potato prints or screenprinted posters with relatively limited facilities, but etchings, lithographs, relief printmaking and even digital printmaking usually require a well-equipped studio. Printmaking usually involves collaboration and infrastructure and much of Butler's book involves the documentation of various print studios, printmaking societies, art schools and access studios with their frequent name changes and complex and at times ephemeral histories.
Amongst the major art forms, printmaking is the one most susceptible to changing fashions of taste. If in the 1920s it was a closely 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 the suburban sprawl and for inner city living. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander printmaking revitalised the tradition in the early 2000s, and one can argue that there is a fresh burst of popularity for printmaking in the COVID era as many of us are increasingly housebound and seek to beautify our nests.
What sort of book is Printed? It is basically an encyclopaedic reference book about post-WWII printmaking in Australia, predominantly illustrated from the 37,000 Australian prints in the NGA's collection. Roger Butler, as the curator of this collection between 1981 and 2020, is an enormously erudite individual who has had the resources of the NGA at his fingertips to realise and publish much of his research. Invariably some of his value judgements will be questioned, some details will be corrected and some of the assumptions will be disputed, but this book and the two earlier companion volumes form the bedrock upon which most subsequent research on Australian printmaking will build.
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