PROFESSOR PETER WHEELER
Dean, College of Fine Arts
With apologies to William Shakespeare, the College of Fine Arts presents as its first exhibition of 2004-2005, The Prints of Denmark. The exhibition is of prints by former students of the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. Four sets of prints were generously donated to the College of Fine Arts by the Rektor of the the Academy, Dr Else-Marie Bukhdal on the occasion of the the exhibition , Seven From Afar, in Sharjah, in April 2004. This was an exhibition of work by seven Danish artists, following the exhibition, Five From Afar, showing work by five artists from Sharjah, in Copenhagen, in October 2003. All these exhibitions are part of the developing cultural exchange program between the Department of Culture and Information in Sharjah and the Danish Ministry of Culture.
This year, the Royal Danish Academy is celebrating its 250th anniversary, making it one of the oldest art academies in Europe. The ‘Grafisk Skole’, The School of Graphic Arts was established around 1920 and is one of the youngest of the schools in the academy. Despite its relatively young age and short line of professors and teachers, the School has made its mark on the development of Danish art.
Prints as a form of replication and expression have existed for hundreds of years. They have been used for conveying information, as illustrations in books, as posters, and for reproducing the works of other artists. For years - parallel to their work with painting and sculpture - Danish artists had expressed themselves through the graphic arts. Through small paper formats and the qualities of different print processes, artists could achieve results unique to the medium used and different from other media, different even from drawings. Etching has always had its own silver-gray tonality and dry point its own special black. It was common practice for artists to exchange prints with each other, artists and collectors established collections in Print Cabinets. One of Europe’s oldest collections is to be found in Copenhagen in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Statens Museum for Kunst, which is open to students and researchers.
The Danish artist J. F. Willumsen (1863-1958) spent long periods in Spain where, among other things, he encountered the great print series of the Francisco Goya. He also spent time in France where he met artists of the Impressionist and Post Impressionist movements and saw Paul Gaugin’s woodcuts and the prints of the Symbolists. With these experiences and a large French photogravure press, Willumsen returned to Denmark, where he surprised the public with his exhibitions of new graphic works.
Almost at the same time, Norway’s great artist, Edvard Munch exhibited his ground-breaking prints in Copenhagen, giving rise to an explosive growth of interest in this medium among Danish artists. 1909 saw the foundation of "The Society of Graphic Artists" to promote Printmaking as an autonomous artform.
At the Royal Danish Academy, there had long been an interest in etching, but the technical facilities were lacking. Around 1920 a professor of painting, Axel Jørgensen, took the first steps towards establishing a department for the Graphic Arts. Experiments were carried out in the professor’s kitchen, to develop expertise in etching and aquatint. The new department attracted a large number of students, and soon a head of department was appointed, the artist Holger J. Jensen (1900-1966), who was to become the first Professor of Graphic Arts in 1963.
Long before this, however, the flowering of the Graphic Arts had exercised a profound influence that can still be felt today in a graphic tradition deeply indebted to the founder of the School, Axel Jørgensen whose view of life and the world that we live in reflects that expressed in Edvard Munch’s prints. When a school, and with it a tradition, grows to strength and maturity, it will often be followed by a kind of counter-school and this is just what happened at the beginning of the 1960s. This school was formed by young artists from outside the Academy. Their experimental approach to Printmaking was inspired partly by the new American Pop Art and partly by a commitment to expressionism that rejected the traditional narrative element in the Graphic Arts.
The young artist Poul Gernes, who later became a professor at the Academy, described the new simplification that took place as follows: "First the solemn and the allegorical went, then the recognizable motif, and soon all that remained was the construction of the motif. Then that went too, leaving only form, surface and colour. When that was also thrown overboard, the only thing left was the structure." In one print by Poul Gernes, he hit a copper plate 100 times with a hammer and took an impression.
While the The counter-school dissolved itself, the School of Graphic Arts in the Academy continued to attract young artists, who experimented with form, structure and texture while at the same time retaining a firm grasp on the tradition. The 1970s was a period in which prints were produced in large editions. Both at the Academy, where new groups of artists were formed, and in the School of Graphic Arts, this was driven by the wish to make art more widely accessible to the general public.
This was also a time of manifestos. While Printmaking continued to combine a narrative form with a polemical purpose, artists continued to experiment with form structure and texture. Printmaking flourished in the form of book illustrations, posters, portfolios and books devoted solely to prints. Classical techniques were also used to produce new and beautiful postage stamps. Traditional serigraphy (screen printing) is still being practiced today in the production of bank notes and stamps.
Artists traveled abroad and art exhibitions came to Denmark. The volume of printed images was overwhelming; and to become visible in the competitive universe of images, graphic formats grew in size - out of their frames, out into urban space. The workshops of the School of Graphic Arts could not live up to the new demands posed by these trends.
The new graphic art adopted found images, to which artists added their own visual commentaries. For a time formal and technical experiments lost their topicality. The machine-made surface of serigraphy was needed for the new forms of expression, and artists moved into commercial studios where the required equipment and technical expertise were to be found.
Artists have always been found ways of adapting and recycling existing technologies. The presses on which sea charts were printed could be used to print etchings. Lithographic stones used by industry to produce labels could be used to produce autonomous works of art. And, of course, artists saw the opportunities offered by photography, serigraphy and more recently photocopiers. When new techniques appear, so do new forms of expression. Artists seek new paths, and art renews itself. At the beginning of the 1990s it became possible to extend the Academy’s School of Graphic Arts. New and better workshops with the latest graphic equipment were provided.
Serigraphy is not limited by the nature and size of the object. In principle, one can print on anything, transfer new or already existing pictures to any surface. Prints were made on canvas, on glass, on meter-long lengths of paper, on transparent plastic, on tables and plates and furs. Printmaking became part of Installation Art. It was no longer so much a question of the the definition of the Graphic Arts, but of how to extend the possibilities of print media within the context of contemporary practice, in which traditional boundaries have disappeared.
Notwithstanding, the small, sensitive structural experiments and prints using classical techniques have survived both as mono-prints and in books. There continues to be a lively interest in many different kinds of artistic expression, and many young artists are again working two-dimensionally. Discussions among art students and the generosity with which they share ideas in alliance with the new surroundings at the School of Graphic Arts has created a fruitful climate for the emergence of talent and a new graphic consciousness.
Rasmus Eckardt, Lars Grenae, Anne Marie Ploug, Bertil Skov Jørgensen and Smike Käszner were part of this environment together with Erik Steffensen and Finn Naur Petersen. Their common interest in working with printed images has manifested itself in an enormous variety of approaches to print media. The continuous debate among them, has served to sharpen their perception - both of their own work and of the works of others - and to prevent repetition results already achieved.
In the mid-1990s, eight Danish printmakers, a lithographer and a copper-plate printer sailed to the Faeroe Islands. The Tórshavn Museum of Faeroese Art had established a Printmaking workshop, which was now to be put to the test. Workshops, printmakers and collegial gatherings are always a valuable opportunity to exchange new ideas and methods. The lithographer had returned home from a month’s stay at a lithography workshop in New Delhi with a video showing an elderly artist, clad in yellow, inking a stone using the method employed in all the lithographic workshops of the world. Then the picture changed to a smiling young artist, who said: "Hi, this Dilip Tamüly speaking to you." Six years previously Dilip had been a guest student at the School of Graphic Arts in the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. Now he was working in New Delhi and sending a message to fellow Danish printmakers in Tórshavn. A couple of days after Rasmus Eckardt returned to the Academy a fax arrived from Katmandu in Nepal, with the message "Would you like to visit our graphic workshop?"
As Rasmus Eckardt points out, "In recognition of the necessity of encountering the works of other artists from other cultures, artists and artworks have always and will always cross national and cultural borders. Printmaking is the most transferrable and transportable of all art media".
I am very grateful to Rasmus Eckardt for for his excellent and concise history of the development of Printmaking in Denmark and in particular in the Royal Danish Academy.
Professor Peter Wheeler
Dean, College of Fine Arts