ART MARKET / Small scale hits the big time: Miniature prints are becoming as valued as their larger cousins. This week some of the finest contemporary work from around the world goes on show in Leicester

Click to follow
THE cheapest and most visually exciting art form I have come across for years is celebrated by an international exhibition at the City Gallery, Leicester, that opens on 23 June and runs to 30 July - the 1994 British International Miniature Print Exhibition. The prints have to measure around 70 sq cms to qualify, and the tiny size seems to concentrate artists' minds. The prints, all by living artists, have an intense, jewel-like presence. Most are for sale at prices ranging from pounds 15 to pounds 60.

Little is heard of miniature prints in the world of art criticism, presumably because there is so little money to be made out of them that only enthusiasts - or artists - bother to promote them. Nevertheless, the genre enjoys a well-organised international circuit; there are regular international exhibitions of miniature prints, mostly biennales, in Binghamton (New York State), Napa Valley (California), Lodz and Torun (Poland), Cadaques (Spain), Seoul (Korea), Olofstrom (Sweden) and Dublin.

Artists working anywhere in the world can send examples of their work to be considered for these exhibitions; the submission is then whittled down by a jury and prizes awarded - just like the Royal Academy Summer Show. The fact that it is so easy to send a miniature print by post - it is smaller than the average letter - means that a fully international submission can be achieved without massive transport and insurance costs; the organisers plunder each other's shows - sending entry forms to artists who have shown in other centres, as well as to art schools and associations.

The 200 prints on show in Leicester are the work of 157 artists from 31 countries. They were selected by a jury of five from a submission of 1,837 works by 673 artists. One quarter of the prints on show are British, another quarter come from Eastern Europe and the other contributors span the world, including China, Japan and Scandinavia. The printmaking tradition flourishes particularly strongly in Eastern Europe where art schools are still organised on the lines of 19th-century academies, with a strong accent on skills - from life drawing to printmaking - and miniature print exhibitions always have a particularly strong East European showing.

The Leicester exhibition is organised by Peter Ford, a 57-year-old artist-etcher who runs the Off-Centre Gallery on the top floor of his own home in a Victorian terrace in Bristol; he also organised the First British International Miniature Print Exhibition at the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in 1989. In 1986 he opened the Off-Centre Gallery in his home. It is open by appointment only and shows a fascinating range of international printmakers, including a large contingent from Eastern Europe that Ford got to know by travelling to miniature print exhibitions - he has been on several East European exhibition juries. He sees and selects with an artist's eye and this means that the overall quality of the prints that he has for sale is very high.

Ford has two etching presses in what used to be a corner shop on the ground floor of his terrace house. He and his partner, Christine Higgott, live on the middle floor; the gallery shares the top floor with their bathroom. Over home-made watercress soup, the shy, bearded artist told me of his parents' opposition to his becoming a painter, his years teaching art in secondary schools and living with Christine in a commune in Ramsgate, then the gradual taking off of their international marketing activities when they moved to Bristol in 1981. Many of the exhibitions they organise also tour Britain - the miniature prints will be seen in six locations, including the Bankside Gallery in London, over the next 18 months.

In the absence of previous art criticism of this genre, I must make a stab at placing it in context. It has very little in common with the contemporary prints which show up in Sotheby's and Christie's sales and major galleries. Those are large-scale works made by artists who have achieved international fame with their paintings; using lithography, screenprint and photographic techniques, these prints tend to have been made at the suggestion of dealers who wanted to cash in on the ready market for original work by famous names. These prints sell to the public, who would like to buy paintings but can't afford them, at prices generally ranging from pounds 500 to pounds 5,000.

In other words, most contemporary prints are cheap substitutes for paintings, made by artists whose central interest lies in the medium of paint on canvas. The printmakers that Ford is showing are very different. None of them is a household name but, for most, printmaking is the primary means of expression. They work in a tremendous range of techniques; the Leicester show includes etchings, dry points, aquatints, mezzotints, intaglios, wood engravings, lithographs, screenprints, card relief prints, photo etchings, linocuts, and computer- generated images.

The miniature format was first turned into a significant art form by printmakers such as Holbein, Callot, Rembrandt and Bewick. The prints on show in Leicester grow very directly out of the Old Master tradition, often using the same techniques - and using them with the very high level of skill which can only be achieved by artists who spend most of their time on it. The subjects and quality of imagination, however, are modern; there are computer-generated abstracts, symbolist, surrealist and photo-realist works. The pleasure they give the eye derives both from the image and the texture of the print - the latter being a particularly significant feature in an age of flat photographic reproductions.

The variety of expression can be underlined by a few examples. Konstantin Chmutin, one of St Petersburg's leading printmakers, uses the 17th-century mezzotint technique to make his still-life studies, The Favourite Snail of Alexander Kolokoltsev, selling at pounds 60, and Garlic and Egg, at pounds 55. The joy of these simple images derives from his control of tones, from a rich velvet black through shades of grey to white. Tim Dolphin of Manchester, in contrast, has produced tiny, computer-generated abstracts; he has used this technique to reduce vivid images, reminiscent of De Kooning, to a jewel-like miniature format. They sell at pounds 30.

Magardich Kassapian of Plovdiv, Bulgaria - whose identical twin Krikor Kassapian also has work in the show - has compiled horn-shaped spirals of human figures, a little reminiscent of Richard Doyle's famous design for the cover of Punch. Kassapian's Two Horns IV and Two Horns V, costing pounds 38 each, are worked in dry point - which means drawing directly with a metal point on a copper plate. The ridges on the plate wear down very quickly, and only a few good impressions can be pulled. Rembrandt was a master of this technique and so is Andrei Shabunin from Kharkov, in the Ukraine, whose two brilliant heads of old men look like updated Rembrandts ( pounds 30).

There are several notable contributions from Asia: a screenprint entitled Third World by Zamirnal Islam of Bangladesh with superimposed photo images of poverty in bright colours, a Warhol-ish technique, priced at pounds 30; Nose Lady and Camouflage Lady ( pounds 41.60 each) by Yuji Hiratsuka, a Japanese artist living in the US, who uses intaglio and chine colle to render colourfully contrasting Japanese textiles; and a brightly coloured Chinese woodblock print of a child clutching a fish, Continuing Prosperity ( pounds 40), by Sun Yu Jie of Lanfang City, Hebei Province, China. In any number of senses, this exhibition is a world in miniature.

The 1994 British International Miniature Print Exhibition is at the City Gallery, Leicester, 23 June-30 July. For sales contact the

Off-Centre Gallery, 13 Cotswold Road, Bedminster, Bristol BS3 4NX (0272 661782).

(Photographs omitted)