250 The prints revolution

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is showing a highly imaginative presentation of printed matter from the Dutch Golden Age. It stimulates speculation about the development of an audience that simultaneously looks and reads and often counts and calculates as well.

Everyone knows that in 1450 books could only be made by hand, that by 1500 almost all of them were printed mechanically and that the print revolution changed the world. But it was not only texts that went into mass production in the 15th century. Visual images also became reproducible in print. The woodcuts and engravings in circulation by 1500, many of them in books or combined with letterpress, increased astronomically the number of pictures people could know. Did that change the world too?

An idea of the extent to which graphic imagery penetrated daily life after the print revolution can be gotten – and relished – at a splendid exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Prenten in de Gouden Eeuw: van kunst tot kastpapier (Prints in the Golden Age: from art to shelf paper; closes 19 March) covers a period that did not begin until 150 years after the big bang of the print revolution. By then vast galaxies of print culture had been formed, in mutual interaction with the social universe.

Ship's chest pasted with prints, second half of 17th century, Troense, Denmark, Valdemars Slot

Ship’s chest pasted with prints, second half of 17th century, Troense, Denmark, Valdemars Slot


It took an act of formidable mental gymnastics to put this show together. The organizer, Jan van der Waals, had to get outside the envelope in which art historians and collectors sign, seal and deliver graphic art. In the textbooks you read only about the masterpieces of the peintre-graveur, the artist who designs and prints his own blocks and plates. In the specialist literature you can also read about lower grade reproductive prints, but after that there is nothing except for a few categories of collectibles like catchpenny prints. Van der Waals treats all products of graphic printing as a single class, in which monotypes by Hercules Seghers have a place alongside calendar sheets, diagrams of the universe, captioned portraits of sea heroes and a dazzling variety of other printed matter.

Finding a way to arrange these objects, from bits of paper to globes, toolboxes, safes, decks of cards, fire screens and the closet lining of the subtitle, was the second big challenge. Van der Waals, assisted by the imaginative curators and exhibition designers of Boijmans Van Beuningen, came up with a division into eleven tableaux representing guiding principles of life and thought in the 17th century: the elements, the seasons, various religions, war and other disasters and so forth. Each tableau is a space in the exhibition, guiding the visitor on a magical illustrated walk through the mind of a Golden Age Dutchman.

One thing struck me more than anything else. Not only is the division between high and low art an obstacle rather than a help in understanding this irrestistible material. So is that between the printed word and the printed image. Nearly all 231 items in the show combine pictures with words. These products of the print(s) revolution assume a vast audience to whom simultaneous looking, reading, counting and measuring was second nature. If anything divided medieval from modern man, this – even more than literacy alone – would be it. From all we have been learning recently about how mental activity affects the brain, I would conclude that inescapable immersion in the picture-and-alphabet soup of the print(s) revolution changed humanity as profoundly as the discovery of fire. So there!

© 2006 Gary Schwartz. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad: Persoonlijk, Amsterdam, 25 February 2006

The very beginnings of the revolution in graphic printing are the subject of another exhibition, which I have not seen, now running in Nürnberg. It was curated by Peter Parshall of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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