This exhibition explored the multiple nature of original prints. From the 1890s on, the Museum’s print collection has been characterized by the collecting and exhibiting of more than one impression from a single engraving or etching plate, woodblock, or lithography stone. The comparison of earlier and later impressions from the same printing surface enabled the viewer to fully understand the artist’s original intentions, which are inevitably obscured as the printing surface wears away or breaks down with repeated printing. Comparative impressions of prints by such major painter-printmakers as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn were included to dramatize what a great print can be at its optimum and what a ghost of itself it can become with repeated printing.
Even more interesting from the expressive point of view is the way in which artists have used printmaking to make variations on a theme. Beginning with Rembrandt in the mid-seventeenth century, artists have made subtle or dramatic changes in the work on the printing surface, revising their conception of the subject (Degas). These changes to the work on the plate, or “states,” enable us to share in the creative process and in the evolution of the artist’s ideas. In the case of creative variations in printmaking, it is not a question of which one is the most beautiful, it is the creative process itself that is beautiful. Artists have also experimented with different inkings—painting with ink on the printing surface—or chosen papers of different colors or textures on which to print (Rembrandt, Whistler). They have also hand-colored or drawn over their prints (Redon, Johns).
“Beauty Contest” included many of the Western world’s most expressive printmakers: Dürer, Rembrandt, Piranesi, Goya, Degas, Gauguin, Kollwitz, and Picasso, as well current printmakers, such as Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Michael Mazur, and Elizabeth Murray.