popular prints

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Marcel Duchamp (1887—1968) French-born artist

Maxfield Parrish (1870—1966)

Jack Vettriano (b. 1951)

Vladimir Tretchikoff (1913—2006)

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A term used in the context of 20th-century culture to describe mass-produced and mass-marketed coloured reproductions that are generally bought as items of furnishing by people who otherwise demonstrate no interest in art. They generally reflect a conservative aesthetic and a view of the world in which, as Christine Lindey, one of the few art historians to have studied the subject seriously, puts it, ‘fruits are unblemished, flowers never fade, and snow is never slushy…Landscapes are peaceful and unscarred, animals roam free, children never grow up and work is virtually non-existent’. This kind of print was pioneered by the American firm of Currier & Ives, which operated in New York from 1857 to 1907, and in the 20th century many specialist firms catered for the market: Frost & Reed and the Medici Society in Britain, for example, the New York Graphic Society in the USA, and Hanfstaengl in Germany. They were frequently marketed by mail order alongside household goods and would be more likely to be obtained from department stores than specialist art dealers. Nonetheless the ‘anti-elitism’ of the form should not be over-idealized. The popular erotica of Sir William Russell Flint is made available in strictly controlled limited editions. Marcel Duchamp in his assisted ready-made Pharmacy (1914) pointed out that the fundamental feature of the phenomenon was the mass production of the appearance of spontaneity and individuality.

Many of the artists involved are not well known by name, although Maxfield Parrish was famous in the USA for many years and Sir Gerald Kelly was once prominent in the field, his picture of a Burmese girl entitled Saw Ohn Nyun achieving enormous sales. Another best seller was Rodrigues Clemente's Red Skirt, a depiction of a Flamenco dancer, which was a bestseller in the early 1960s, significantly just as holidays in Spain began to be popular and affordable. It hung on the living-room wall of the house of Jack and Vera Duckworth in the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street, perfectly defining both their taste and their generation. The other artists who have achieved large sales of popular prints include the British marine painter Montague Dawson (1890–1973), the so-called ‘king of the clipper-ship school’, and the Russian-born, South African-domiciled Vladimir Tretchikoff, probably the most financially successful specialist in the market: The Chinese Girl (1952), the most famous of his exotic beauties, is said to have sold more than half a million copies in large format. More recently Jack Vettriano has had enormous commercial success with works such as The Singing Butler, which project a world of retro glamour, although calendars and greetings cards are now as important a vehicle as the framed print. The name of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844–1934) is less familiar, although there can be few who have never seen his images of dogs playing poker. Among ‘serious’ artists whose work has achieved success in popular print form are Salvador Dalí (notably with Christ of St John of the Cross) and Andrew Wyeth (notably with Christina's World). Picasso (Jacqueline with Flowers, 1954) and Buffet (although not his more critically acclaimed and gloomier early works) have also been popular with those who aspired to more ‘contemporary’ taste. In 1977 the exhibition ‘Towards Another Picture’, organized by Lynda Morris and Andrew Brighton for the Midland Group, Nottingham, attempted to present a picture of British art which brought together modernist artists such as Hoyland and Caro with artists popular in reproduction such as Cuneo and Shepherd. In spite of the interest this aroused at the time, a gulf usually remains between those contemporary artists most popular with the general public and those lionized by the modern museum, with only rare figures such as David Hockney bridging the gap.


Subjects: Art.

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