Lithography, the process used in creating all works of art in this exhibition, was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder. Senefelder was a German inventor who first happened upon this revolutionary printmaking process. He’d polished a piece of limestone to emulate the smoothness of a copper plate, initially planning to merely practice the art of writing backwards. After etching the surface, Senefelder attempted to ink the surface and suffered a couple false starts. He then cleaned the stone with water, and on his next attempt Senefelder noticed the damp areas of the stone rejected ink while the greasy lettering attracted it. He’d discovered the basic principle required in lithography - the fundamental inability of oil and water to mix.
To create a lithographic print, first a stone is drawn on with oil-based drawing materials. Then it is etched with the help of acid and gum arabic to produce a chemically unique surface upon which the oil-based ink will adhere to the drawing, but be repelled by the moist stone in the negative areas. The naturally smooth surface of limestone allows artists to create prints with the same tonal qualities and fluid lines of a painter or draftsman, and by 1830 lithographic prints were being created with up to 15 colors.
Though invented in Germany, it was in France where artists truly tested the boundaries of lithography and made it a fine art. In the 19th century lithography was mostly used by commercial printers – it was fast and yielded a high number of prints, useful during the Belle Époque when theaters were frequently bringing in singers and dance troupes. One artist saw an opening and bridged the gap between fine art and advertisements, and it was Henri du Toulouse-Lautrec. His dramatic lines and flamboyant compositions for the Moulin Rouge popularized color lithography for fine artists and collectors. Other artists soon followed him into this foray such as Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró.
Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Permanent Collection displays the wide range of styles possible within the realm of lithography. Contemporary artists are continually pushing the boundaries of the medium, adding their own flair and interpretation to its elements, and at times even combining it with other printing applications. Through each artist’s interpretation we’re given a glimpse into the versatility of lithography, and while each work of art has been crafted with the same basic technique, no work resembles another.
This exhibition has been curated by Associate Curator of Special Collections and Archives Lauren Wolfer.
March 7, 12:15pm: Curator's Tour
Chief Curator Charles Shepard will lead you on a lively and engaging tour of this exhibition. Free with museum admission.