The Matisse prints that will open the Tampa Museum of Art are very much original

"A Celebration of Matisse," the exhibition that will inaugurate the Feb. 5 opening of the Tampa Museum of Art's spiffy new building on the city's downtown riverfront is a big, prestigious show of works by one of the greats in 20th century art.

There will be paintings and sculptures but the majority of the works will be prints. Some readers have expressed disappointment, implying that prints are not as important as "original" art such as a painting.

It's true that a painting by an artist is almost always more prized. One reason is that even if an artist spends as much time working on an image for a print, the end result is usually multiple manifestations of that image. But prints, like paintings, are originals. In a different way.

So this upcoming show gives us a timely opportunity to revisit the discussion of the print medium. The confusion is understandable; it's a huge field and covers lots of techniques.

The easiest way to talk about what a fine art print is is to talk about what it isn't. A fine art print is not a reproduction. That word "original" may seem odd associated with a medium usually thought of in multiple terms.

Essentially, a fine art print is not a copy of something else — a painting, for example. It's a freestanding work, created by an artist to be a print. So a copy of a beloved painting in a museum, no matter how fine, is a reproduction. A poster. I don't disparage them; I have had my share of nice posters matted and framed like original art and they look swell on a wall.

Beyond that distinction, prints have many variables. The most obvious is the way one's made. The classic processes, used for centuries, are the kind in which the artist cuts, draws or engraves an image onto a surface such as wood, stone or metal. Photographic processes have been added more recently. After the image has been created, it's run through a press one or more times.

Why would an artist make a print instead of a painting? It's an interesting medium with lots of room for innovation and creativity. It's collaborative. Artists work in solitude much of the time; they work with other creative types in a print shop, needing the skills of artisans and master printers. It's typically faster than painting or sculpting so artists often make a series of prints to noodle around ideas they might want to interpret in another medium. Prints are also less expensive, providing a way for artists to extend their reach to a broader audience.

Matisse used most of the classic methods (to my knowledge no photographic techniques). He, like his peers, was classically trained with lots of drawing classes. He loved printmaking because it was like drawing to him; you see in his mature prints a genius for the sinuous lines, elegant and spare, as beautiful in their own way as his paintings.

He made them in numbered editions, another important element in defining a fine art print. When the surface image goes through a press, each is numbered and each has subtle differences created by slight variations of the press and the person operating it, and by the inking, even by the slight wear and tear on the surface image every time it goes through the press. Artists often add embellishments to a print — hand coloring parts of it, for example, which further adds to each one's uniqueness.

There are exceptions to this definition of a print's validity, most functions of age and time. Posters and pages from books, reproduced in the hundreds or thousands many years ago, can become prized because, even though once common, they are now scarce. (So maybe the photos in your bio of the Kardashian sisters will be valuable in 2309.)

All that said, the warning "buyers beware" is important if you want to collect prints, especially old ones. You need to know a print's history; they can be faked a lot more easily than paintings.

The prints in the Tampa Museum show are the real thing. They come from two sources, a foundation set up by Henri's son, Pierre Matisse, and Pierre's wife, Tana. Pierre was bequeathed the prints by his father so their provenance is unquestioned. The other group, on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art, is part of the famous Cone Collection.

Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone were wealthy Baltimore collectors who began buying contemporary (at the time) art during their frequent travels to Paris in the early 20th century. They amassed one of the finest collections of modern French art in the United States. They knew Matisse personally and loved his work, buying both prints and paintings, and probably anything else he was doing at the time. (The Matisse Foundation has added to Baltimore Museum's great Matisse collection, too. )

Sure, the paintings and sculpture will add more dimension to the show, but the prints can stand on their own and need no validation. Matisse had a profound respect for printmaking. So do I. I can't wait to see this collection.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

The Matisse prints that will open the Tampa Museum of Art are very much original 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 5:31am]

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