Friday, September 23, 2011

A Mash-up of Chromolithography, Meat Extracts and MacArthur Fellows

No. 1: The artist composing the image in his studio.
No. 2: Extracting the limestone.

No. 3: The studio for lithographic reproduction. 

No. 4: Making press proofs.

No. 5: Printing the final large press sheets.

No. 6: The final trimming and collating of the cards.

The highly regarded German chemist, professor, and a founding father of organic chemistry, Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), invented a way to produce beef extract from carcasses (hmmm) as a cheap alternative to real meat. In 1865 he formed the Leibig Extract of Meat Company and like many businesses of the 19th century, he advertised his business with beautiful sets of trade cards. Nearly 2000 Liebig cards have been documented since the Liebig Company began issuing them around 1872. They continued to produce them for over 100 years on everything subject from famous Belgian scientists to masters of illusion, usually in sets made up of 6 cards. The earliest Liebig cards were printed using a method called chromolithography, and are prized among collectors for their fine quality of printing and design. 
       This set of 6 cards displayed above, from User Online, illustrate the actual production of chromolith printing of the day. The process of chromolithography was invented in the late 1790s, 40 years before the invention of photography, and it was an alterative to the woodcut or engraving process where you carve into the surface in order to create a relief image. Chromoliths, (sometimes referred to as chromos), are known as planographic prints, meaning the images and text were drawn on a flat, limestone surface with a greasy crayon and when it chemically treated, the drawn areas would attract ink and the stone would repel it. Each color represented a different stone and press run, so the task of producing this method of lithography was not only extremely labor intensive, but an art that few mastered. The subtle texture of each print comes from the irregular grain of the stone. Some of the finest printers were in Germany and France where much of the best quality limestone was mined.
       The set of 6 cards above illustrate the entire chromolithography printing process in consecutive order. In one corner of each card is a small infographic of ink colors next to a portrait of Mr. Liebig. Each card progressively adds 2 more colors resulting in a combination of 12 ink colors for the final portrait. The background on each has an illustration of the one step of the print process beginning with the first card of your average long-haired, pointey-beard artist at his drawing table. Next, in consecutive order, is the extraction of limestone (a nice word for mining); a factory of artists painting stones; making press proofs; the printing; and then the final trimming, collating and packaging. I regret that I could not find larger versions of this set of Liebig cards, but the Princeton University Library reported on a larger rez which I've included below. It is a German version of the same French card No. 4 you see above. Interestingly, they were probably printed at two different printing houses and you can see some dissimilarities in color and detail. The text at the bottom of the German version is also much nicer, which leads me to think it was likely the original or first edition. Granted these are at 2 different resolutions, but it does appear that German card has more definition and detail overall. 

Another version of card No. 4, but in German this time.
Below is a photo of 2 litho stones which I took this past summer at the wonderful Museum of Printing in N. Andover, MA. The people at the museum actually printed from the stone recently and you can see an example of it next to the original.   

Below you can see a 1907 Liebig card on Venezuela from Four Ages of Sand. A magnified portion of it displays the extraordinary detail and combination of colors in a typical Liebig color chromo. 

If you are interested in learning more about the stone lithography process, you must visit The Museum of Modern Art's site, The Printed Picture, hosted by noted author, former Dean of the Yale School of Art, photographer and MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, Richard Benson. In addition to a video on chromolithography, Benson has a total of 8 hours of videos there discussing every printing process from early Lumière autochromes, Japanese woodblock printing, wood engraving to printing processes such as the old piano roll. It is an incredible archive of material and extremely well-documented. His beautifully designed companion book to the MOMA site and a 2008 exhibitThe Printed Picture is one of the most comprehensive guides on printing processes I have ever seen and an essential resource for printers of all stripes. You can read a great book review of it by Jerry Kelly on AIGAs site.
As a side note, Richard Benson just happens to be the uncle of Newport, RI stonecarver, Nick Benson who is also a recent MacArthur fellow. For those not counting, that is two "Macs" in one family! Nick was honored with a "genius grant" just last Fall for his lettering and stone carving work. I reported on Nick last Winter here on Letterology and for AIGA's Voice series, and I had the wonderful honor of visiting him and his brilliantly talented father John Benson in their RI shop in July. John's father, John Howard Benson began the family stone carving business at The John Stevens Shop in 1927. He was an artist, calligrapher, teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design and author of The Elements of LetteringAt the time of my visit I learned of yet another talented Benson; Nick's brother, Christopher, who lives in New Mexico and is a very fine painter in his own right. He also designs and publishes some very fine-editioned portfolios of artists work at The Fisher Press. I found it hilarious that each one of the Bensons will independently claim the other is more talented than the next. They are a one-family art colony—the art gene runs very deep in that family! 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.