LONDON - Modernism is characterised as a period of rapid and radical stylistic innovations in western art history. A brief survey of Modern printmaking underscores the diversity and innovation at the turn of the century: Munch laboured over his controversial lithograph Madonna from 1895–1902. Picasso embarked on a lifelong fascination with printmaking when he etched his first plate in 1904, the ambitious and accomplished Le Repas frugal. The Repas was eventually published by Ambroise Vollard in 1913. The dealer was a crucial champion of printmaking in Paris; ten years earlier he had strong-armed painters such as Cézanne and Renoir into experimenting with lithography under the tutelage of Auguste Clot. The more formal innovations in colour theory by Seurat and Signac translated seamlessly to colour lithography with the process of printing successive colour stones. Signac’s Saint-Tropez of 1897-98 is one of few examples of Pointillism in graphic art.

Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895–1902.
Pablo Picasso, Le Repas Frugal, 1905.
Paul Signac, Saint-Tropez, 1897-98.

In Germany, the young artists Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rotluff founded Die Brücke in 1905. The group built on the formal innovations of the Parisian avant garde and the notable influence of Munch with a simple and direct style, characterized not by refined beauty but a new spirit of freedom and heightened expression. Printmaking was fundamental to the philosophy of Die Brücke. Kirchner’s Mädchen am Elbkai from 1909 is a superb example of a print that epitomizes these values. The vitality of the finished product belies the painstaking printing process executed by hand, described in the catalogue essay. The stray ink in the margins and a blue finger print on the verso literally show the artist’s hand in its production. An emphasis on simple, sometimes even rough, lines and hand printing are aspects of Die Brücke’s commitment to immediacy, even with a medium that requires forethought and technical challenges.

(left) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Mädchen am Elbkai, 1909. (right) a blue fingerprint on the edge of the verso side.

Lucy Rosenburgh is a specialist in the Print department, Sotheby’s London.