Because of their capacity for reproduction, prints have long served as vehicles of communication and have been considered more democratic than other media. Prints, which exist in multiple copies and are relatively portable, have been used to effectively spread ideas, information, and points of view. Artists have used print media—lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, and screenprints—to question power and authority, condemn war, shed light on social inequities, and elicit empathy for those who struggle. At times, fine art prints have functioned as broadsides or catalysts for action and social justice, especially during the New Deal era and the Federal Art Project in the 1930s. Throughout their history, prints have been central to engaged art practices and have powerfully given expression to the human condition.

Bethany Collins (American, born 1984), April 9, 1963, 2016. Embossed paper, 26 1/4 × 18 inches. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, purchase funds donated by Julie and Lawrence Bernstein Family Art Acquisition Fund, Press Collection Endowment Fund, and Block Museum Special Projects Fund 2020.3.1.

This recent acquisition, researched and selected by students in the course Collecting/Critique: Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts? (Northwestern University, Spring 2020), reproduces the front page of an issue of The Birmingham News. While the work does not use traditional print techniques, its embossed surface creates a ghostly, barely legible text. By reproducing the text of the front page of a historic newspaper—but without ink or images—the artist questions the way histories are shared and understood. The title April 9, 1963, refers to the Birmingham campaign, a 38-day non-violent campaign against segregation, which included lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and boycotts of downtown merchants. The board of The Birmingham News decided they would not cover these Civil Rights protests. It was several days later that Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after his arrest on April 12, Good Friday, in response to clergy members who criticized the campaign in The Birmingham News.

Entry adapted from the research of Lois Biggs,’20; Cooper Brovenick ’20; Wenke (Coco) Huang ’22; and Joely Simon ’21.

Honoré Daumier (French, 1808 – 1879), Rue Transnonain, on April 15, 1834, published in L’Association Mensuelle, July 1834. Lithograph on white wove paper, 14 3/8 in x 21 5/8 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Sidney and Vivian Kaplan, 2002.3.18.

Daumier was a French painter and lithographer who rose to prominence amid the tumultuous social and political occurrences of the early 19th century. This striking image, a reflection on a real event, represents a marked difference from his typical work satirizing and commenting on contemporary French life and politics. Daumier frequently contributed to print publications likethe daily Le Charivari and the monthly L’Association mensuelle lithographique, where this print was published six months after the title event in 1834. [Read More – Collection Spotlight: Rue Transnonain, on April 15, 1834, Honoré Daumier]

On the 10th anniversary of the start of World War I, Otto Dix made a series of fifty etchings that described the shocking brutality of war that he had experienced as a young soldier. Although Dix had joined the army in 1914, after the war he used his art to process his experiences and produced strong anti-war statements. In this series, originally distributed through the pacifist organization Nie wieder Krieg (Never Again War), Dix used the corrosive medium of etching to convey the destruction and decay of modern warfare.

During the years of the New Deal, many artists were employed in federally funded printmaking workshops and worked in lithography, etching, and screenprinting. By 1938, the Graphic Arts Division employed nearly 800 artists with workshops across the country. Within the print shops, artists worked collaboratively and often addressed social themes like economic inequality, championing workers and labor while critiquing wealth and power. Produced in multiple copies, prints became vehicles for sharing messages about social justice and injustice. In 1937, the director of the Federal Art Project claimed that printmaking is “the most democratic of the arts, by reason of its methods of reproduction” and speaking “the language of the common man.

Sipho Hlati (South African, born 1963), Kubi…indoda yashiya bhedi yayo (It’s a Painful Thing…), 1989. Grey and black linoleum cut, 17 7/8 in x 24 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1994.73.

In this large-scale linoleum cut, artist Sipho Hlati represented the daily hardships for Black South Africans in townships during the years of apartheid. In this work, alternately titled Life in Cape Town, he divided the image into three registers in order to show different aspects of daily life.

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917 – 2000), Confrontation on the Bridge, from the portfolio An American Portrait 1776–1976, 1975. Color screenprint, 19 1/2 in x 26 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Paul S. D’Amato, LS 1985.3.4.

In the mid-1970s, Jacob Lawrence was among thirty prominent artists invited to contribute to a print portfolio in recognition of the United States Bicentennial. For An American Portrait, 1776–1976 artists were asked to reflect on American history since 1776. Lawrence depicted an event that had taken place only about a decade earlier, when in March of 1965 activists organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in an effort to fight for voting rights for African Americans. Lawrence selected a moment from the recent past when marchers were confronted by the National Guard on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The Guard is represented by a single snarling, vicious dog baring its teeth on the lower left, while the marchers on the right are characterized by their unity.

Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), Mother and Child, from the portfolio CONSPIRACY: The artist as witness, 1971. Color Lithograph 24 in x 18 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Evelyn Salk in memory of her husband, Erwin A. Salk, 2001.20d.

The simplified, overlapping colors in this lithograph are reminiscent of the collage medium Romare Bearden often worked in. While he often depicted themes of Black life in the rural south or in Harlem, the compositional structure of a mother with downcast eyes, holding her child in her arms, and the incorporation of a single pearl earring recall details from Renaissance paintings. Yet this image transforms these motifs by including the mouth and nose of a mask from the ancient Nigerian city-state of Ife in the lower half of the mother’s face. This work was created as a contribution to an activist project, the portfolio Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness. The initiative, which includes prints by thirteen artists, was organized to raise funds for the defendants in the trial of the Chicago Seven in the early 1970s.

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