On Books and Prints
— Carl Zigrosser
Mukul Dey came to know Carl Zigrosser (1891—1975), a specialist writer
on graphic art and the founder of the Weyhe Gallery in New York later on, in 1916-17. Their acquaintance
matured into a life long friendship. Often they exchanged letters and greetings
cards. Mukul Dey sent many of his original prints to Zigrosser.
At Philadelphia Museum of Art in USA, where Zigrosser’s papers are preserved, one could see the letters and pictures of Mukul Dey. Similarly, at Mukul Dey Archives in Santiniketan are located a few of Zigrosser’s books and greeting cards. All fondly inscribed by the author to Dey.
Below we have reproduced one of Zigrosser’s essays compiled in a slim little book titled Fine Prints Old & New, published in 1937 by Covici Friede Publishers of New York. From 1940 till his retirement in 1963, Carl Zigrosser was the Curator of Prints and Drawings at Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Carl’s writings may have influenced Mukul Dey deeply. For Dey, ever
priced most his original prints very moderately so that he can address a wider
audience. Zigrosser’s views on graphic prints are amply clear from the following article.
“I was pleased”, Charles Lamb once wrote, “with the reply of a gentleman, who being asked which books he esteemed most in his library, answered—‘Shakespear’s’; being asked which he esteemed next best replied—‘Hogarth’s’. His graphic representations are indeed books: they have the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meaning of words.” Lamb in this quaint anecdote has hit upon a truism which is apt to be overlooked just because it is so obvious—the unusually close connection between books and prints. That a graphic representation has a power akin to the power of the written word is of course well known to the editors of the tabloids today, as it was to Gregory the Great when he wrote in the sixth century to the Bishop of Marseilles: “What writing is to those who read, that a picture is to those who have only eyes; because, however ignorant they are, they see their duty in a picture, and there, although they have not learned their letters, they read; wherefore, for the people especially, pictures stand in the place of literature.” But this fact is not so well known to the reading public at large and to those artists who themselves make prints, such as etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs.
The similarities between books and prints are indeed numerous. They are both “printed.” They both represent an important step in the spread of popular culture. When old Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century perfected his method of printing books from movable type, when he began to print these books on paper—the manufacture of which was generally spread throughout Europe at that time, and which provided a cheap and durable vehicle for printing—he furnished the means by which the knowledge that is in books could be brought to the masses.
He made possible the transition from a manuscript available for a few to printed books accessible to many. In the same way the nameless inventors and perfectors of the technique of engraving and etching and woodcut represented a milestone in the history of art. They transformed the unique drawing and painting which could be owned and enjoyed by relatively few people into a veritable multiplication of originals available to a widespread public. It is because of their achievement that it is possible nowadays to purchase a book or a print for a hundredth or even a thousandth of what a manuscript or a drawing or painting would cost. Books and prints are the products of a democratic revolution in the history of culture.
Less than a hundred years ago prints used to be published just as books were published; that is to say, they were put out in unlimited quantities by a regular dealer or publisher, who occasionally happened to be the artist himself. Simultaneously with the regular prints would be issued a few specially fine proofs, usually called “open letter proofs,” or “scratched letter proofs” or else “proofs before all letters.” (Prints usually had the name of the artist and the engraver, the title of the print and the address of the publisher engraved on the plate.) These special proofs bore the same relation to the regular prints that editions de luxe bear to trade editions of books. Thus it was customary in times past to bring out a regular edition of prints as well as a small “edition de luxe” for those who wanted to pay a little extra for something especially fine. And the prices that were paid for prints were about the same as those paid for books; even the proof prints cost but little more. Blake’s set of Illustrations of the Book of Job (twenty-one engravings on copper) were issued, for example, at three guineas for the prints and four guineas for the proofs (about twenty dollars for the set or about one dollar per proof). Durer, in his fascinating Diary of a Journey to the Netherlands, jotted down that he sold a proof of his engraving “Adam and Eve” for four stivers (about eighty cents) and bought two little pamphlets on Luther and the Reformation for two stivers (about forty cents).
It was not until the end of seventeenth century that it became customary to issue books at a fixed published price. But from contemporary testimony we have been able to determine the prices at which some books were sold when they first appeared. Caxton’s Golden Legend sold for five or six shillings around the year 1500. Milton’s Paradise Lost sold for three shillings; Walton’s Compleat Angler, for one shilling six pence. The price of Shakespear’s First Folio is said to have been one pound. And many books sold for a penny, as Robert Copland’s doggerel testifies:
“A penny I throw is ynough on books
It is not so soone gotten, as this worlde lokes.”
Nowadays prints are not “published” in the sense that I have used the word above. The cheap unlimited editions have disappeared; an artificially limited number of signed artist’s proofs are issued, which are the equivalent of the special proofs of the old. And the prices that are asked for these proofs are sometimes ten or even one hundred times the price of what a print used to cost. It is just as if among books nothing were published but editions de luxe! Formerly the special proofs were the fine flower of an expression that had its roots in popular demand and culture. Today we go in for the flower exclusively and forget to cultivate the roots. No wonder the flowers wither and the plant dies!
Mr. A. Washington Pezet has described the world of books as it would be if the same conditions prevailed among books that are current in the print market today:
You can buy a book of real literary merit for the same price you are asked to pay for a piece of hack writing. What you buy is solely a matter of your own personal taste. You don’t have to buy trash unless you want to. But suppose that good books were issued only in the de luxe limited editions selling from fifteen to two hundred dollars a piece? What a world of enjoyment the average man and woman would be missing! How relatively unknown and how much less successful, economically speaking, our leading authors would be. How precious and out of touch literature would be with the life of the common people from which it actually draws so much of its inspiration and support.
We have seen what similarities are there between books and prints in their character and purpose. In content likewise, the analogies are obvious. Just as there is drama in book form, so there are in prints various dramatic sequences, such as Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode or Rake’s Progress, or Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (which are not really illustrations of the Bible story, but a drama of Blake’s own composing). What are the woodcut sequences of Masereel or Lynd Ward but novels in picture form? A portrait has as much reality in words as in pictures. Likewise, the extended portrait or biography is exemplified in Durer’s woodcut, Life of the Virgin, as well as in innumerable books. Goya’s etchings of the Tauromaquia are as much an essay on bull-fighting as Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. There is satire in Goya’s or Sternberg’s prints just as in Swift’s or Juvenal’s writings. Prints by Rowlandson and Daumier, by Peggy Bacon and Mabel Dwight, are nothing else than funny stories or humorous poems. There are historical pictures, The Battle of Bunker Hill, to cite a single example, as well as historical writings. Are not many of Rockwell Kent’s lithographs, or Howard Cook’s prints, examples of travel and description? But it is in the field of poetry that the analogy is most clear. A print may be considered as a poem issued in a single broadsheet. The same intensity and unity of mood, the same appeal to timeless beauty, are apparent in both. An enterprising publisher in Paris once brought out a book of sonnets and etchings side by side. Durer’s engravings, “Melancholia” and “Knight, Death and the Devil” are examples of didactic poems. Mantegna’s “Entombment” or Orozco’s “Requiem” is as moving an elegy as “Lycidas” or “Adonais.” A landscape by Rembrandt, etchings by Meryon, Whistler or Haden, as well as prints by Wanda Gag or Victoria Hutson Huntley are lyric poems par excellence. Even the drama and biography just mentioned are on the plane of poetry in mood and construction. Fine prints are poetry in another form.
Today fine prints are regarded as art with a capital “A.” They are issued as editions de luxe at prices which very few can afford to pay. They are collected, when they are collected at all, as something rare and precious. This attitude, which is of comparatively recent growth, is to my mind a step in the wrong direction, and one which violates the essential character of prints. We should return to the great tradition of the graphic arts, and read and study and enjoy prints and be moved by them as we are by books. New prints should be published in the same unlimited quantities.
The prices should be so low that everybody could afford to buy them, for that is the real purpose of prints—the multiplication of originals toward a greater dissemination of culture and beauty. There is a logical reason for the high values placed on certain prints by great masters of the past, just as there is on famous and rare books or old first editions. These values represent true recognition of historical or cultural importance, the judgment that society places on its masterpieces. To place high values on contemporary productions through artificial rarity is nonsensical.
Both prints and books are democratic and popular forms of art and are linked together in content and aim. It is high time that we again regard them as such. The implications of such a transvaluation of values are stupendous. Pictures of high quality, masterpieces even would be within the reach of everybody. For the cultured person, the man of taste, the discriminating reader, a vast new continent of enjoyment and appreciation would be opened. He could afford to own not just a few isolated examples, framed on the walls of his apartment, but a large collection of favorite artists or authors, preserved in scrapbooks or solander cases in his library. By means of interchangeable frames he could change the pictures on his wall from time to time according to his mood or taste. Public libraries would lend pictures as they do books. (This step has already been taken at the Newark Public Library and others.) Prints would again be read and studied and enjoyed instead of being regarded as objects of ostentation or as financial investments similar to engraved stock certificates. The important thing is to approach prints with the same attitude with which one approaches books. It is astonishing, for example, what a profound insight into human nature is to be acquired from a close study of Daumier’s lithographs; they are a comédie humaine as memorable and dramatic as Balzac’s life-work. For the print-makers the implications are equally stimulating and rewarding.
They would again recapture the large public which they have lost through the transformation of prints into objects of luxury. They would be encouraged to produce the best that is in them, confident that their efforts would be published to the world and appreciated at their real worth.
They would give real meaning to Currier and Ives’ boast: “Print-makers to the American People.”