Kansas City, Mo. — When you look at a Jasper Johns print, the images seem cold, yet familiar. Cans and other mass-manufactured items blend with graphics that seem to have been created by a machine rather than the human hand.
Johns and other 20th-century printmakers, however, share something in common with their predecessors. Like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 19th century, Rembrandt in the 17th century and Albrecht Durer in the 15th century, they sought the fame and fortune that only duplication and wide dissemination of their original designs could provide.
``Prints are important to culture because people couldn't buy paintings,'' Marc Wilson, executive director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said.
The importance of printmaking is made clear in the museum's newest exhibit, ``Inked in Time: Six Centuries of Printed Masterpieces.'' The exhibit shows off more than 100 prints from the Nelson-Atkins Museum's extensive collection of approximately 7,000 graphic works.
The exhibit is organized by centuries, beginning with the 15th century and continuing through modern times. Artists include Francisco Goya, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Pablo Picasso, Winslow Homer and Edouard Manet. Represented media are woodcut, engraving, drypoint, etching, mezzotint, aquatint and lithograph.
``It's an asset that's little shown,'' Wilson said, explaining that many of the prints are rarely displayed because of their sensitivity to light.
Making its way to Europe
The history of printmaking began with the invention of paper by the Chinese in 105 A.D., according to George McKenna, retired curator of prints, drawings and photographs and now a consultant to the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
``It took a millennium for it to arrive in Europe,'' he said.
Westerners were introduced to printmaking as they traveled over caravan routes from the Orient.
In the 15th century, McKenna said, most prints contained religious themes or images, probably because the artists were monks. The earliest prints were made using wood blocks -- carved pieces of wood that were inked and then stamped on paper -- or engraving on metal, which was free of the cracking, insects and worms often found in wood.
``The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine'' and ``The Disrobing of Christ,'' both hand-colored woodcuts, are included in this section of the exhibit. McKenna said the prints, which have a fresh appearance, were preserved by being pasted on an inside book cover or the inner lid of a box.
Discovering new techniques
New printmaking processes began to be discovered in the 16th century. Etching -- the technique of obtaining lines in metal plates by the immersion in or application of acid -- was found to be easier than engraving and more accurately mirrored drawing styles.
Chiaroscuro woodcuts, a polychrome form using several blocks to emulate pen and ink and wash drawings, originated. Intaglio plates allowed graphic transcriptions of sketches and paintings.
Landscapes became worthy subjects; religious and mythological themes co-existed.
A fine example of 16th-century printmaking, McKenna said, is Durer's 1514 engraving, ``St. Jerome in His Study,'' which shows the saint in a room with his faithful lion companion nearby.
Sticking to etching
Etching was the principal method used for printmaking in the 17th century -- from French artist Jacques Callot, who repeated immersions in the acid to add degrees of tonality to his works, to Rembrandt, who added dark drypoint accents and varied the amount of ink left on his printing surfaces. Mezzotint also was devised.
Religious and mythological themes continued to be popular, but other themes included portraiture, warfare, rural merrymaking and costume.
Eighteenth-century prints had a sense of theatricality, especially those by Viennese artists Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Antonio Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
Aquatint was invented during this century. Using powdered rosin dusted onto a plate or painted onto it in an evaporable solution, the technique leaves minuscule peaks around which the acid bites to form mottled areas that are effective as background or shading.
Lithography steps in
The range of printmaking in the 19th century is vast, from the striking prints of Goya's ``Caprichos'' that condemn the corruption of the Spanish church and states to the innovations of the Post-Impressionists, who were influenced by Japanese woodcut prints and photography.
Lithography was used for the first time, and the ancient method of woodcut was revived and used to print colors off-register to produce a filmy effect. Large-scaled color posters with advertisements for products or entertainment lined the streets.
In the 20th century, many European and American artists turned to multiple graphics. This section includes the vivid posters of Leon Bakst, a designer of ballet costumes and settings, and Johan Thorn Prikker, a painter who also worked in mosaic, glass, furniture and textiles; the female portraits by Picasso; and Pop art designs by Johns, Stella and Lichtenstein.
Several events are planned at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in conjunction with its ``Inked in Time'' exhibition. Here's a partial list:
- Walk-in tours, 1 p.m. Wednesdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through May 31.
- ``Highlights from the Lowlands: Dutch, Flemish and Belgian Prints'' lecture by Steve Goddard, senior curator of prints and drawings at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, 2 p.m. Saturday.
- ``Printmakers' Favorites'' gallery walks with Kansas City artists, 7 p.m. April 3 and May 1.
- ``Art Explanations: A Look at Techniques,'' informal talks with University of Missouri-Kansas City printmakers, 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 28, April 11 and 25 and May 9.
- ``Current Trends,'' a discussion by Adrane Herman, Michael Krueger, Karen Kunc, Zigmunds Priede and Craig Subler, 2 p.m. April 18.
For more information, call (816) 751-1ART.
-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.