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Prints With/Out Pressure

Book Illustration

Mass-produced book illustration originated in the mid-15th century in Europe with the inventions of the printing press and moveable type. Although intaglio methods, such as engraving and etching, largely replaced the woodcut as the preferred form of the printed image in the 17th and 18th centuries, those techniques had a significant drawback: because the metal plates used for intaglio are only a few millimeters thick, and their inking process is completely different from that of type, they are incompatible with the printing of text. Wood blocks, on the other hand, can be made to match the height of the type, and the two can be inked and printed together mechanically. In the late 18th century, with the invention of wood engraving, the relief print again became a popular method of illustration, though it was subsequently eclipsed by the development of photomechanical processes in the late 19th century. It did not take long for the hand-carved relief process to be revived yet again, as illustrators of the 20th century were drawn to the relief print’s potential for expressive imagery and ease of printing.

Although the three illustrators represented in this exhibition took very different approaches to their work, they demonstrate a mutual passion for woodcut and illustration. Fritz Eichenberg, for much of his career, was commissioned by large publishing houses to create illustrations for major literary works. He described his approach to illustration as a “complete submersion” in the story, by means of taking a “deep interest in the author, in his personal life, in the background of his time, in the motivation that impelled him to write.” While Eichenberg focused primarily on the psychological and narrative aspects of illustration, Leonard Baskin and Antonio Frasconi, whose books are exhibited in the case, gravitated toward experimental format and often playful imagery. Because their books were shorter in textual content and printed by hand, they had more freedom for innovation. Indeed, Baskin founded his own press, The Gehenna Press, in order to print, bind, and publish texts of his choosing, illustrated by his own prints.

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