William M. Ivins - Prints and Visual CommunicationI became aware that the backward countries of the world are and have been those that have not learned to take full advantage of the possibilities of pictorial statement and communication, and that many of the most characteristic ideas and abilities of our western civilization have been intimately related to our skills exactly to repeat pictorial statements and communications.”

These are the introductory words to the first chapter titled “The blocked road to pictorial communication” in William M. Ivins’ book “Prints and Visual Communication“. While I would agree to the thought that many ideas and cultural values of the western civilisation have been proposed and developed in a close bond with the ability to repeat pictorial statements and communicatios, I started to ponder about the first part. Backward countries? If you call countries backward, how do you define the “forward direction”? Furthermore: assuming that there is something like a backward country: Is it true that such countries did not take full advantage of pictorial statements?

William Mills Ivins, Jr. was born in 1881 as the son of a famous New York lawyer (William Ivins Sr.). After studies in Munich he received his law degree in 1907. From 1916, he was curator of the Prints Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he turned the small prints collection into one of the worlds most renowned collection of prints. He retired 1946 from the museum and died in 1961.

Ivins published his “Prints and Visual Communication” in 1953. The title of the book already illustrates a key motto of his approach to a history of prints: prints (etchings, engravings, woodcuts) are prime media for the dispersion of scientific knowledge and cultural ideas. The function of prints as a work of art is in his eyes inferior to its role as a conveyor of communication:

The importance of being able exactly to repeat pictorial statements is undoubtedly greater for science, technology, and general information than it is for art” (p. 2).

Thus, prints are a precursor to modern photography . The term “print”, in Ivins’ view, changed from the “true” definition as an “accurate pictorial repetition” to a somewhat mystified aesthetic object with a mere snob appeal:

Certainly we cannot hope to realize their actual role unless we get away from the snobbery of modern print collecting notions and definitions” (p. 3).

Thus the late Curator of the Prints Department of the MetMuseum.

Certainly, to look at a print as a mere work of art is to lose an important facet of its overall value and importance. But can we treat a decorative Rokoko pattern or a Rembrandt self-portrait the same as accurately depicted plants in botanical books? Is it snobby to look at a Demarteau copy of a Boucher portrait primely because of its artistic value and delightful visual impression of its beauty instead of assessing its role for dispersing cultural values?

And last but not least: I’m still bothered with the term backward countries. “Backward” conveys the notion of a movement in the “wrong direction”. In his book, Ivins’ first illustration is a painted woodcut from Boner’s “Der Edelstein” (the gem), from 1461. He omits the fact that the Chinese already had used woodcuts in the 10th century for illustrating texts:

“After all, the technique of making repeatable pictorial statements, i.e. the woodcut, was known to the Chinese long before it was applied in Europe, without giving the Far East a corresponding advantage over the West. Perhaps there is some leaven in the Classical heritage which accounts for this difference?”

Thus Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich, in his review of Ivins’ “Prints and Visual Communication”.

platinum print ; 20 x 14 cm. William Mills Ivins papers. Archives of American Art. From

William Ivins, ca. 1900. Gertrude Käsebier, photographer. Platinum print ; 20 x 14 cm. William Mills Ivins papers. Archives of American Art. From the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

William M. Ivins, Jr., “Prints and Visual Communication“, MIT Press paperback reprint of the first edition published in 1953 by Harvard University Press.