Anyone for Etchings?

photo: expo, interior, couvent des cordeliers

The roomy interior of the Couvent des Cordeliers.

The 'Mois de l'Estampe à Paris'

Paris:- Friday, 1. June 2001:- Either you will be envious or you will be pleased to learn that your magazine about life in Paris is well enough known to receive regular invitations to important 'openings' of minor and major art events, so that it can inform you of events here even before Le Parisien gets around to telling its readers.

Actually some of these invitations have been arriving for years. But it is only very recently that the days and times have been changed from Thursdays at 18:00 to days like today, at noon.

Today's invitation is for the opening salvo of the 'Mois de l'Estampe à Paris 2001' - which is a bit wordy since we know it is in Paris and it has been 2001 for exactly five months. The invitation's odd feature is its reverse side, which is all white, or blank.

This is the fourth edition of the 'Mois de l'Estampe.' In the late '90's it was an annual affair for threephoto: litho press 2 years. This year the 'Mois' will become bi-annual. The show goes on for the whole month, in 64 locations around Paris - in print ateliers, art galleries and in institutions.

One of several print presses on display at the exhibition.

To get a bearing on this, the Couvent des Cordeliers is a focal point. There is another information centre at the Viaduc des Arts. The 'Mois' is also backed by three government ministries and the offices of two deputy mayors of the city of Paris. It has been organized by the association 'Les Ateliers Estampes Originales Contemporaines' which was created in 1994.

Today's 'vernissage' is in the Couvent des Cordeliers in the Rue de l'Ecole de Médecine. This convent was set up around 1230 by 'minor' Franciscans, one of the four big orders of begging monks. Although allowed to possess nothing they were well-off enough for the popular couplet, 'Mais boire en Cordelier, c'est vider le cellier.'

During the Révolution the convent was suppressed and became the headquarters of the 'Club des Cordeliers,' which had Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Marat, Hébert, Chaumette and Legendre as its principal members. The remaining building, the refectory of the convent dates to the end of the 15th century, and for this month contains the exhibition called 'Paris Capitale de l'Estampe.'

Elsewhere around the city, you can visit the ateliers where engravings are made and printed, the galleries where they are for sale, the various institutions that have them on display, and also visit a number of companies that sponsor art works. In all, there is a lot to see.

But to start with, 'L'Estampe' means engraving, which means the art of doing so. Etching is the same thing, but is the technique of it. This idea is to scratch a surface, ink it, press paper on it, to achieve a print. It is both an art form and a reproduction process.

To do it requires some familiarity with creating art and some knowledge of the techniques of reproduction. Actually, its origins go back to before the time when books were made inphoto: looking at engravings small series, rather than hand-made one-offs. The 'pochoir' method dates to Roman times.

There are several techniques, all antique, for making engravings. Paris is the only city where all of the old techniques are still used for making contemporary prints - so the city is the world's centre for this, and is therefore attractive to foreign artists who want to practice this art form.

It may not be exactly suitable as a gallery, but the interior of the old convent is worth a visit too.

The one form that is not antique is 'sérigraphie,' or silkscreen, but it falls within the 'art' category because it is used more for limited short runs than for commercial printing these days.

Most contemporary art consists of one-offs and is destined for private collections or for museums. Engravings, because they are reproductions in series, are more accessible to private collectors. Engravings are not reserved for a privileged elite, even if they are made by artists.

My entry into the Couvent des Cordeliers at noon is made without fanfare, much as usual. I am not the first to arrive, but the big, high-ceilinged interior is nearly empty.

The check-in sign-in area is not particularly organized, as if I've gotten here a bit early. There is no ready-made 'press kit,' but what there is can be had for the asking. I bite myself in the finger for not doing the extra bit that could have gotten me the boxed set of postcard-sized prints before they were all snapped up.

The interior of the Couvent desphoto: litho press Cordeliers has been left mostly open, rather than having mazes of temporary walls for exhibition space. I keep looking up high, at the 500 year-old beamed ceiling, with its irregular and curved beams.

Another press, which was not shown being operated.

Scattered around are a few various presses and some displays of engraver's tools and pots of inks. The real show is the engravings. Some are small and framed and some are big, and tacked up here and there.

Not many of the works on display are purely abstract. Many are like cartoons. Some are extremely elaborate pieces of art.

I don't mind looking at engravings or silkscreened prints, but thinking about the work that goes into them is daunting. If I want to, I take a pencil and make a drawing, and that's the end of it - no reproduction.

Well, not in print, not these days. Metropole's weekly cartoon is done by hand and then it is digitalized and tossed onto the Web. If you make a print of it, that is it's reproduction. On my part, it is pretty lazy.

After a while I see a small group of people who are moving as a group. These include Dominique Jacomet, who is the coordinator of the 'Mois,' and he is explaining the show here to Lyne Cohen-Solal, who runs the 'Métiers d'Art' on the new city council, and Christophe Girard who does the same thing for 'Culture.' Some of the others are from the national Ministry of Culture, but their faces are unfamiliar to me.

Because this is the case, I am unable to decide whether this signifies that the 'Feds' and the city will be working more closely together, or if it is just because of this particular 'Mois.' It is also possible that the somewhat neglected area of the print is in for a big boost, like - ha! - I'm trying to give it here.

Whichever it is, the official group takes an entire, casual tour around the whole exhibit. Along the way, somebody has handedphoto: ink, litho tools Christophe Girard a transparent plastic sack full of exhibition goodies and he is carrying this around just like any other exhibition visitor.

Some ink tins and other tools for doing lithos. To see these in use, visit the ateliers taking part in the 'Mois.'

Finally they fetch up at the buffet table, which is already under assault by artists, fans, journalists and other people looking for a free lunch. The sandwiches go as fast as the one-size-fits-all Bordeaux can be poured into plastic cups, but the basket-bottomed plate of crudités is largely ignored.

This is like a little 'taste' scene out in the country somewhere, in this old barn of a convent. There are no trumpets, fanfares, techno music or spacy light shows, except for what is fitfully pouring in through the 500-year- old windows.

It means, I guess, that the organization is favoring 'art' rather than putting on pomp and free lunches for the 'art crowd.' It does not look as if anybody minds, and I certainly don't.

'Mois de l'Estampe à Paris 2001'

Exhibition 'Paris Capitale de l'Estampe,photo: vernissage wine until Saturday, 30. June; daily from 12:00 to 19:30; at the Couvent des Cordeliers,15. Rue de l'Ecole de Médecine, Paris 6. Métro: Odéon. Free entry. InfoTel.: 01 43 38 02 66.

Until Thursday, 28. June; from Tuesday to Friday; from 10:00 to 13:00 and from 14:00 to 17:00; at the Société d'Encouragement aux Métiers d'Art, Viaduc des Arts, 23. Avenue Daumesnil, Paris 12. Métro: Gare de Lyon. InfoTel.: 01 55 78 85 85.

The 'vernissage' stuff, appropriately labelled.

The two addresses above serve as information points for the entire program of the 'Mois de l'Estampe.' All of the exhibited works have been selected from limited series' of prints, which have been numbered and signed by the artists.

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