Technology and Reproduction

Technology and Representation

The tension between metaphoric and metonymic modes of knowledge (humanist vs. scientific, linguistic vs. iconographic, similitude vs. resemblance) persists across centuries. The ultimate conclusion of these recurrent debates is usually to declare these modes “separate but equal.” However, the impasse seldom stands—separate cannot be equal— neglect or atrophy of either mode results in aphasia. Accounts of the construction of knowledge are always linguistic in nature, subsuming the visual underneath an avalanche of commentary that reasserts the power of the word.

In “Facts of Fragments? Visual Histories in the age of mechanical reproduction” (Art History 25:4 September 2002), Dana Arnold paints an alternative view of the proliferation of knowledge in the eighteenth century:

By the opening years of the eighteenth century the proliferation of the printed image ran ahead of the increased production of the printed word. The printed image became an essential component of the international currency of intellectual ideas that transcended spoken language boundaries. These images facilitated the transference of ideas about architecture, antiquity and aesthetics in the pan-European arena of artistic and scholarly exchange. There is no doubt that prints were essential to the formulation of a visual repertoire of studies of antique art, architecture and artifacts. (450)

By the end of the eighteenth century, few artists in England (including William Blake) had really seen much in the way of classical or continental art except through mechanical reproductions—sometimes finely executed engravings, more often, inexpensive and shoddy woodcuts. However, even lacking the “aura” of an original work, these reproductions had a profound impact on the way that artists and the public perceived art. Neoclassicism was largely founded on mechanical copies, copies that held great currency when dispersed largely without intelligible textual description. The explosion of “print culture” meant much more than the proliferation of the book.

The technology of text and image was separate until the mid-eighteenth century. Engravings and woodblocks were printed on separate presses; engravings were sometimes hand-colored (often by women) after printing. Books were sometimes sold unbound, requiring yet another artisan to connect them together. The production of illustrated books was rare until after mid-century, and likely fueled by the collectors market for prints. Printed images achieved a sort of fetish status, and created an increasing level of personal attachment:

Prints empowered the purchaser as well as the printseller. Examining prints in one’s own parlor was not the same as looking at them in an exhibition or in a country house. A humble collector could hang, sort and annotate them at his pleasure. He could arrange them historically, or according to artist, subject matter, or genre. Aristocratic connoisseurs had expressed their taste and judgment through such arrangements and in the way they talked about the prints. Now this was possible for much humbler collectors. Addison may have felt that the “charms” of looking were as great as the “pleasures” of “possession,” but possession enabled the owner to put his mark on prints, not only literally (there was a long tradition of print collectors identifying “their” prints by adding a cipher or symbol) but by placing them in a context which shaped their interpretation. The growing popularity of “graingerizing,” of interleaving books with prints, is one sign of how engravings enabled their purchasers as well as producers to shape culture. (John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination 461)

In a real sense, the public created the expansion in illustrated books by the conflation of image and text—a desire answered by publishers with expanded illustration. But the collection and cultivation of artistic images was also matched by an expansion in the production of likenesses of an entirely personal and private, rather than public and social, nature.

The early eighteenth century also saw the explosive development of the “shade” or silhouette. Even the lower classes could afford to have their likeness, reduced through the aid of a pantograph, cut into paper. As the century progressed, miniature painting blossomed. The ability to possess an image of oneself, or of a loved-one, became an increasingly profitable market; technology answered the siren call of economics.

Technology was particularly well accepted in Jeffersonian America, where small silhouettes were thought to be less ostentatious than a full oil portrait. A machine invented in France called the physiognotrace, a machine employed to directly engrave silhouettes on a copper printing plate, was incredibly popular fifty years before the daguerreotype. But in academic art, the intrusion of intermediary technologies such as the camera obscura was treated almost like a dirty secret. Joshua Reynolds, head of the Royal Academy, had his disguised to look like a book. However, the increasing demands of accuracy brought about by naturalism resulted in a proliferation of aids for reproduction.

The eighteenth century provoked the rise of an art “industry” freed from the bonds of patronage. Rules, in keeping with the spirit of the enlightenment, were formulated and systematically inscribed in language, perhaps to keep them safe from popular corruption. The reproduction of art had a deep impact on the art of reproduction. It is certainly open to debate if art’s aura was quenched or inflamed by the proliferation of reproductive industries in the eighteenth century.