The Limits of Limited Editions – Modern Masters in Print


Limited Edition

I like to think that I’m getting a bargain and this also applies when I’m shopping for art. At Christmas I bought myself a limited edition print of a canvas and rather than angling for a discount I asked the artist if he could limit the number of prints of this picture to ten instead of his usual 25.

The original canvas is in private hands and I’ve got the only print, so does it make any difference whatsoever to the value (financial or artistic) what the theoretical maximum print run of this picture is?

 Le Cirque, 1945 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I was thinking about limited editions and reprints this weekend when I visited the “Modern Masters in Print” exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. This exhibition is ‘on tour’ from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and includes over 50 works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. It seems that I’m not the only one to be confused about the relationship between prints and originals. Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints) at the V&A reports that in some venues the feedback she’s received is that the exhibition should have included more of the ‘good stuff’. What people mean is that they want to see original paintings rather than prints.

With four exceptions, however, these works are not copies of paintings but works of art in their own right. All of the artists in the show were using different methods of printing as a means of experimentation and original expression.

The prints in the exhibition were original works conceived by the artist for the particular print method they had chosen. They didn’t see them as a commercially more productive technique, but as a way to develop their artistry.

Matisse described preparing plates for printing as “drawing with new tools” and Picasso also found that the printmaking was feeding his creative process in other media.

Andy Warhol, when asked in 1971 about the difference between his paintings and his prints, famous answered “the difference is that paintings are on canvas”. The acid-test of authenticity in print seems to be whether the work was conceived for the medium you’re looking at or if it is a copy of a work in another.

 The Frugal Repast, 1904 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Picasso’s powerful study in poverty and alcoholism ‘The Frugal Repast’ was only his second foray into print. It was made during his blue period in 1904 and used a zinc etching plate which had previously been used for a landscape print by his friend Joan Gonzales. In fact, the faint remainder of Gonzales’ image can be seen in the first impressions to come off the press.

The original print run of The Frugal Repast was very short due to the fragility of the zinc plate. In 1913, however, the plate was steel-faced by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard and the resulting run of 250 prints were widely distributed and helped to build Picasso’s reputation as a print maker. While we don’t expect Vollard to have had truly altruistic motives, this is a good example of the use of technology to broaden the impact of a work of art, rather than restricting it to preserve the value of the limited edition.

Print and reproduction technology has moved on considerably from the early 20th Century and our digital age has introduced questions about limited editions which are not confined to the two-dimensional paper printing which Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol perfected.

Earlier in the year I listened to the BCC 2013 Reith lectures given by Tuner Prize wining artist Grason Perry. Grayson’s current exhibition is a series of six tapestries, each four meters long, which echo William Hogarth’s 1730s morality tale A Rake’s Progress and pay visual homage to several classical paintings in the process. It’s called The Vanity of Small Differences. Each of the tapestries in the exhibition was woven in Belgium using a computer-controlled digital loom which produced the six works on display and two sets of artist’s proofs.

Digital-Loom-and-PerryArtist Grayson Perry watches a digital loom weaving one of his tapestries. Image from the Channel 4 series ‘All In the best possible taste – with Grayson Perry’

Although the works in The Vanity of Small Differences are unique originals, it would be possible (although costly) to produce an identical second set at the click of a mouse. These are unique only due to the decision of the artist, something which Gill Saunders calls “The artificiality of the limited edition”.

Thomas Cronenberg, a member of the European Tapestry Forum Standing Committee takes this criticism of the tapestries as original art works even further. Writing in trade magazine Textile Forum (issue 2/2103) he says that these works have “very little to do with crafts and much more in common with commercial art or, said in an extreme way, colour photocopying.” Because the production of the tapestry is a step removed, he does not see the hand of the artist in the finished work.

A short stroll around the V&A reveals that this question of authorship, design and reproduction has been around far longer than mechanical looms. The largest works in the V&A are a series of paper drawings known as the Raphael Cartoons. These paper paintings are full scale designs for tapestries which were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515. The finished products were hung in the Sistine Chapel and show scenes from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

The Raphael Cartoons are housed in Room 48 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.

In Renaissance Art, the term cartoon refers to the design for an artwork in another medium, usually full size and usually on paper rather than canvas. Closer inspection of these cartons show that they have been cut into vertical strips which were the width of the looms used by the weavers who would copy the design. The cartoon was a mirror image of the finished tapestry as the weavers would work the fabric from behind.

Despite being among ‘the greatest treasures of the high renaissance’, the cartoons on show in the V&A are the 16th Century equivalent of the digital files generated by Grayson Perry. With a pleasing symmetry both artists sent their designs off to Belgium to be rendered in thread, albeit with The Vanity of Small Differences enjoying a more exclusive print run than the Raphaels.


Detail from ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ – Raphael Cartoons © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One detail of the Rahpael Cartoons did raise a question in my mind about the acid-test of authenticity. Did Raphael intend the cartoons to be works of art in their own right, rather than simply designs for the tapestries? The detail in question is the Latin inscription shown below the throne of Sergius Paulus in ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ (above). If this was purely a template for the weaver then the text would be expected to be a mirror image, but the text in the cartoon has been written to be read from the front. This does seem to add fuel to the fire of those who would say the designs are are more genuine and unique expression of the artist’s work than the finished product.

But even here we run into problems about authorship and authenticity. Matisse began his experimentation in print using woodblock printing, but producing the plates was so time consuming that once he had drawn the image he gave the task of carving the hard wooden block to his wife. His signature might have been on the final print, but is it any better than a photocopy of his drawing?

Woodblock used to print Matisse’s ‘Nude in profile on a chaise longue’ Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Laying aside the cost and projected value of the work, there are three questions which will help you decide whether to buy a print, a limited edition or hold out for an ‘original’.

  • Are you looking at a copy of an original, or a work of art conceived in the medium you are buying?
  • How accurately does the print reflect the original? (Is it a good copy?)
  • In your enjoyment of art more about what you can see or about the uniqueness of the piece you own?

I’m looking at my limited edition print as I write. To be honest, it isn’t the number at the bottom which grabs my attention.

Modern Masters in Print is on display at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery until 23rd August. Entry to the museum and exhibition is free – don’t miss it. (The four exceptions mentioned above were a series of striking railway destination posters for SNCF designed by Dalí and commercially printed.)


1 thought on “The Limits of Limited Editions – Modern Masters in Print

  1. The problem gets more difficult with drawings done on an ipad as everyone who possesses the file has an exact original. Possession and value seem to be undermined. I spend many long hours making these digital images. They can be ‘reproduced as acetate prints in lightboxes or even made into tapestries but these are inevitably one removed from the original which only exists in cyberspace.

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