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Reproduction In Fine Art

  Reproduction, in fine art, is the multiplication of an original work of art or design by mechanical means. It may be either in three dimensions (for example, plaster casts) or two dimensions (for example, images made by the techniques of wood-cutting, engraving or etching). While a bronze made from a maquette by Rodin, for instance, is a kind of reproduction, allowing a foundry to make any number of ‘copies’ of the original, most commonly reproduction serves to make multiple copies of an independent work, for example the six engraved scenes of Hogarth\'s Marriage à la Mode (1742-1744). Engravings of this kind are called reproductive engraving. A similar kind of reproduction would be a plaster cast of the Laocoön group.

The invention of the printed book provided an impetus for the production of illustrations for the book trade. These early prints were woodcuts: that is, a relief print where a raised surface receives the ink. The invention of the technique of intaglio printing (where the ink is held in a groove cut into a metal, usually copper, plate) improved the precision of the image, allowing more detail. As a means of reproduction, the engraving enabled engravers to publicize the work of fine-artists: a good example is Marcantonio Raimondi\'s engravings after the work of Raphael. Indeed, Raphael in part owes his pre-eminence among artists to the quality and availability not of his own work, but of reproductions.

Reproduction techniques changed little until the 19th century. Works of art continued to be reproduced by engraving, aided by the development of new techniques such as etching (where the copper plate is bitten back with acid to provide the vehicle for the ink); mezzotint (where the plate is roughened to accept the ink); and aquatint (where the surface is treated with powdered resin). The invention of lithography early in the 19th century meant that an artist was able to draw directly onto stone. This was important, as the lithographic print did not express the artist\'s ideas at second hand, but directly. But all of these mechanical means of reproduction shared an inability to reproduce the material properties of the original. In response to this failure manual copies offered a reproduction imbued with the human touch. Museums of these copies, such as the Musée des Copies, Paris and the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Musuem, London, offered the public surrogate originals. But the advent of photography (seen erroneously as translating an original without interposing its own processes) cost the manual copy its constituency.

The invention of photography led to the development of photo-mechanical reproductive processes such as photo-engraving, in which the original to be copied is photographed onto a sensitized zinc plate which is then immersed in acid in the same way as in the intaglio methods of printing noted above. Modern colour printing, such as we see every day, is a reproductive process based on the successive overprinting of three, sometimes four, colours to give the reproduction a full range of lifelike tones. But no more than the woodblock are these prints able to transcribe the true material aspect of the original; nor can they possess what Walter Benjamin has called the ‘aura’ of the work of art: its lived presence in space and time. Following Benjamin, John Berger based an important chapter of his Ways of Seeing on the impact of reproductions on our perception of art. Today colour slides and colour illustrations are the tools of art historians, students of art history and a large number of the public; but while a reproduction facilitates access to any number of images, it also distorts (and, if Benjamin and Berger are right, impairs) our ability to experience directly the authentic work of art. PD MG



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