The French printmaking studio Atelier Mourlot was the birthplace of the fine art lithograph, and a new exhibition at the New Gallery of Modern Art offers a number of outstanding examples. Contrary to its title, “Atelier Mourlot and The Great Masters of Lithography,” though, not all of the works are from Atelier Mourlot and not all are lithographs.
Pablo Picasso dominates with more than a dozen works that cover his usual territory of tempestuous relationships with women, legend and myth, war, and bullfights. Included are selections from “The Vollard Suite,” his celebrated series of erotic etchings.
The show, open through June 3, includes vibrant Joan Miró lithographs based on playwright Alfred Jarry’s nasty, absurdist character Père Ubu; Marc Chagall’s “Tribe of Dan,” a maquette (model) for one of his famed Jerusalem Windows; and works by Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, and others.
A family legacy
Eric Mourlot, heir to the Mourlot legacy, spent countless hours at the atelier and now travels the world presenting lectures on it. At the gallery, prior to the opening reception, he shared some stories.
Eric Mourlot’s great-great grandfather started the atelier in Paris in 1852, as a wallpaper printing shop. His great-grandfather expanded the business to include the printing of ledgers, maps, and wine and chocolate labels. Eric’s grandfather, the famed Fernand Mourlot, was sent to the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs by his family because he was the most artistic of the lot, and the atelier needed someone with a good eye and formal training. But while at school, he developed revolutionary ideas about what lithography could be.
Fernand Mourlot essentially invented the fine art lithograph. Previously, lithography was a tool for printing practical items. Mourlot enabled some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century to make prints that were not reproductions, but were instead original works of art created in collaboration with the atelier’s printers.
As an artistic endeavor, the Paris atelier employed about 70 people. The family opened a New York shop in 1967, where a staff of about 20 worked with artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Both the Paris and New York shops are long closed, and Eric Mourlot says the cost to run a large shop now would be staggering. He plans to reopen in New York by early 2013, with about five printers – and, as he says playfully, “a bartender.”
The art of printing
Traditionally, a lithograph is made by drawing on specially prepared limestone, which is treated with chemicals and then placed on a hand-operated press for printing. Every color requires a separate stone.
“People don’t appreciate the work that goes into making a print because they think it’s simply a reproduction, when in fact it’s an original. It’s a multiple, but it’s an original,” said Eric Mourlot. “The amount of manual and creative work that goes into creating a lithograph from an artist (is) what makes it valuable.”
In contrast are commercial processes such as offset, which involve no manual work from the artist.
Sometimes, a reputable printer will do a print after an existing painting. But once again, these are done by hand, as a result of a collaboration between the artist and printer; they are interpretations of existing work, not reproductions.
Picasso had the most enduring relationship with Atelier Mourlot. Although he could be a challenge to deal with, he had a rich, if contentious, relationship with Gaston Tutin, the printer assigned to him.
“Picasso mastered lithography the way he mastered etching or linocut,” Eric Mourlot said. “He would try different mediums that you’re not supposed to use, like wax or turpentine. He would bring that work to Tutin and say, ‘OK, print it,’ and Tutin would say, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t.’ ”
Picasso would tease and challenge Tutin: “And here I thought you were the best printer in the world, and I was wrong.”
Tutin would relent and print the work. But because of Picasso’s experimentations, things would often go wrong.
“Of the more than 400 prints Picasso made with Atelier Mourlot,” said Eric Mourlot, “only about 250 have full editions – for the others, there are perhaps four or five printer’s proofs.” However, many of those proofs are now owned by museums.
Creating with color
One of the iconic images in the New Gallery show is Picasso’s “Le Picador II.” It is one of four prints of bullfights he created for the book “A los Toros,” published by André Sauret, a friend of Fernand Mourlot.
“Picasso did the four images, and they were black,” said Eric Mourlot. “So the publisher said, ‘They’re all black. Maybe if Picasso is willing to put in a little color, we could sell it better.’ My grandfather looked at him incredulously and said, ‘Really? You want me to go ask Picasso to put some colors in it? Are you joking?’ ”
Fernand Mourlot did indeed speak to Picasso, who responded, “Oh really He wants color; let me give him some color.” Picasso then grabbed a box of 24 color pencils and began drawing furiously on the image. “We printed it,” said Eric Mourlot, “and it ended up costing a fortune to print.”
The edition of “Le Picador II” consists of 50 prints that Picasso signed and another 125 unsigned prints made for the book.
In addition to the legitimate, authenticated prints, there are also suspect ones floating around out there. These include out-and-out fakes, as well as prints from the book that should be unsigned, but instead have forged signatures. But, Eric Mourlot states philosophically, “That sort of thing has been going on for 300 years.”
Because of its long duration in Paris, Atelier Mourlot was both a witness to and participant in history. Chagall printed there from 1950 to 1985, and the story behind that relationship is moving.
“During World War II, my grandfather had several friends whose print shop was confiscated because they were Jewish. So they worked out a scheme to put the print shop into my grandfather’s name; he got to keep them in the print shop as technical advisers. They actually managed to stay through the war,” Eric Mourlot said. “We printed fake papers for them.”
Chagall, who had spent the war years in the U.S., met with Fernand Mourlot when he returned to Paris. “Chagall said, ‘Look, I know what you did, and I’ll never print anywhere else.’ And he never did until he died.”