Prints: uncensored messages from East-bloc artists

The making of prints is an art of duplication. The printmaker works in copper, steel, linoleum, and wood, carving his image with steel and deepening it with acid, but his art is produced on paper, hundreds or even thousands of times. As a printmaker he becomes his own publisher. In countries where the freedom to publish is strictly regulated by the government, the printmaker is afforded a special license. Prints from Eastern European countries, obtained recently by the Wenniger Gallery on Boston's Newbury Street, reflect the mood of life under the gray socialist governments as surely as they represent the skill of the artists. Imported from Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, as well as from Finland, the prints are a rare example of artistic freedom tolerated by those governments, perhaps unintentionally. These prints hint darkly at subjugation and curtailment of the human spirit in starkly detailed symbols, themes that are probably not permitted to be freely explored in prose.

Of all the prints, those from Poland cry out most passionately. The works of Jacek Gaj of Krakow are full of foreboding; the images stick in the mind as a fervent yearning for freedom. Jan Szmatloch, an engraver from Katowice, depicts two windows side by side -- one open and free, the other bricked up -- in unmistakable symbolism. The Czech steel engraver Jan Hercik, whose work is the most precise, for the most part concentrates on lovingly detailed scenes of Prague. But his imaginative prints unmistakably note the constant surveillance of the state.

Printmakers, especially those who work in brittle, unforgiving material like end-grain hardwood and steel, must put considerable thought into what they render. Such work is slow and requires the concentration of a diamond cutter. Unlike the painter or watercolorist, the printmaker does not see what he has done until it is complete and the first proof pulled. Thus he must hold the mental picture in a mirror image, since he is cutting a printing surface, all the way through the laborious process of engraving the steel or removing the rock-hard maple.

The advantages, however, are that exquisite detail and lines finer than a human hair are possible. Some of the prints in this collection, only slightly larger than playing cards, are moody microcosms that have an effect on the viewer in an oddly reverse proportion to their size.

The prints are in this country largely through the efforts of Charles Merrill, a Boston collector who became aware of East-bloc engravers on a trip to Prague in 1983. He had been in Czechoslovakia and Poland during World War II, and the memory of these war-ravaged lands hadn't faded. The prints he brought back clearly document the extent to which these nations still bear the unhappy legacy of that conflict.

A recent showing of the prints at the Wenniger Gallery was the first of its kind in the United States. The gallery, which specializes in prints and lithographs, has kept the remaining East-bloc prints in its inventory.

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