Sasha Grishin, “Sydney Printmakers: fifty years on,” in Hot Off the Press: new directions, Sydney Printmakers celebrating 50 years, Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Sydney 2011, pp.6-11.
Sydney Printmakers is a unique phenomenon in Australian art with few parallels anywhere in the world. Although numerous exhibiting associations of printmakers have cropped up from time to time in Australia, what distinguishes Sydney Printmakers is three things. Firstly, no other exhibiting organisation of printmakers has so effectively represented the best printmakers of a city and has done this so comprehensively. Secondly, no other organisation of printmakers in Australia has managed to sustain itself independently over such a prolonged period of time without becoming a de facto filial of an institution, such as an art school. In other words, Sydney Printmakers have remained truly independent. While thirdly, no organisation of printmakers has managed to survive for fifty years without extensive periods of dormancy.
The question immediately arises as to why this should be the case. The answer to some extent must lie in the historic peculiarities of printmaking in Sydney in the immediate post-war period. In Adelaide and Melbourne, printmaking gained an early institutional base in art schools and in technical colleges, whereas the situation in Sydney was quite different. Until 1964, when Earle Backen began to teach etching at the East Sydney Technical College, printmaking was not taught in Sydney art schools. Even then, initially there was only a small etching press and a class of nine students; in the late sixties a larger Japanese etching press was obtained, and lithography was introduced in the early seventies. It was this lack of institutional support for printmaking in Sydney that was partly compensated through community action. The Sydney Printmakers formed in 1960 and held their first exhibition in 1961. Their purpose was that of an umbrella organisation for exhibitions and the dissemination of information about prints and their creation. From the start they became the principle forum for printmakers in Sydney and have continued to play a constructive role through to the present day.
Workshop Arts Centre in Willoughby was established at about the same time by Joy Ewart with assistance from fellow artists and supporters and came into being in response to the same circumstances, to compensate for a lack of printmaking facilities at art schools, and it too has continued to flourish through to the present. This popular and democratic basis for the Sydney Printmakers, their independence, and the fact that they had to meet a real need in the artistic life of Sydney have been a crucial part of its dna and to some extent explains its longevity.
Although printmaking goes back centuries, like most art forms it enjoyed periods of popularity and periods of relative neglect. In post-war Australia, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, printmaking was enjoying an unprecedented popularity and was attracting the most exciting young talent of its day. It was also supported by committed print curators working in the state galleries, especially in Melbourne, Adelaide and later in Sydney, and was encouraged by the acquisition of modern prints by these institutions and by touring print exhibitions. The tradition of the modern print which emerged at that time brought together relief printing, intaglio, lithography and screenprinting, all under the one roof, and in this broke with the specialised cottage industry mentality of earlier decades. Printmaking in the 1960s had easily eclipsed the early popularity of the refined intaglio prints of the Painter-Etchers’ Society or the subsequent popularity of the hand-coloured relief prints produced largely by its all female cast. Printmaking in the early 1960s, when the Sydney Printmakers came into being, had a boldness, confidence and challenged for supremacy all of the visual arts. For example, the Lithuanian-born printmaker, Henry Salkauskas, who played such a significant role in the formation of the Sydney Printmakers, on settling in Sydney in 1951 was shocked to discover the low standing of printmaking in Sydney and “he viewed this low esteem for contemporary Australian prints as a kind of personal challenge, which he would do his utmost to reverse.”[i] By 1963 he had won the grand prize for the Mirror-Waratah Festival in the open section with a screenprint edging out the paintings and sculptures which were competing for the same award. This was the first ‘golden age’ of Australian printmaking and the first ‘golden age’ of the Sydney Printmakers.
By the 1980s and into the 1990s printmaking in Australia in general, and in Sydney in particular, became somewhat institutionalised and lost some of its earlier gloss, excitement and prominence as an art form. A number of artists saw a more viable alternative in the poster collectives and turned their backs on the printmaking workshops at art schools, while others abandoned printmaking altogether and turned to painting, installation art or photography. Also, fewer of the younger outstanding students chose to major in printmaking. The second wave of the printmaking revival of the past decade, which we are still experiencing so strongly today, had its catalyst in a number of quite disparate circumstances which included waves of inspiration from Asia; a bourgeoning print market which was in part inspired by the artistic and commercial success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prints and, perhaps most significantly, the absorption of new technologies into printmaking. Printmaking has always been the most technologically adventurous art form. It was the first to embrace the printing press in the fifteenth century, the first to embrace lithography in the eighteenth century, the first to embrace photography in the nineteenth century and the first to embrace digital technologies in the twentieth century. This remarkable ability to constantly reinvent itself has ensured its continuing relevance and vitality. This is not to suggest, even for a second, that the most interesting prints today are those which employ computer technologies, but rather that the new wave of interest in printmaking in general, generated by some of these circumstances, has led to a revitalisation of the whole art of printmaking. Printmakers no longer feel that they are marginalised and participating in an art form that somehow sits on the periphery of so-called serious mainstream art, but instead they have quickly realised that they have front row seats in the emerging developments of contemporary Australian art.
Sadly, in Sydney, this has not been reflected in a commensurate growth of commercial art galleries specialising in prints, in fact there seem to be fewer of them today than a generation ago. Nor has there been a growth and expansion of institutional printmaking departments, but if anything, a slight contraction despite some exceptionally talented and committed staff. This has meant that the Sydney Printmakers today has an even a greater relevance and significance than at any time in its history. There is also a richer diversity of printmakers working in Sydney today than perhaps at any stage in its history.
[i] Gil Docking, “The prints of Henry Salkauskas”, Art and Australia, vol. 20/2, 1982, p.193.