Visual Arts: London galleries - Art houses join force to give prints a better image

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A Century of European Prints

Printmaking, for some reason that no one can ever quite explain, is very rarely given as much critical attention as the other arts.

It tends to be viewed as a secondary activity; something that painters and sculptors do when they're not painting or sculpting, but not really worth considering in its own right. Artists disagree of course, as do print dealers, and for the next month six London galleries specialising in prints have joined forces in the hope that a clutch of exhibitions will succeed where so often a single show has failed.

The exhibitions, grouped under the title "", start with the years 1890-1935 at The Fine Art Society in New Bond Street, where the emphasis of the show is firmly on artists as expert printmakers, rather than trawling through the century's most glittering careers gathering works that happen to be prints.

Inevitably, though, there are many big names here, from Picasso and Matisse to Klee and Kandinsky, but many of the best exhibits are by the British artists who spearheaded the etching revival which took place in this country in the Twenties.

DY Cameron's fantastically solemn landscape Ben Ledi is one of the great images of its time and, a little earlier, Nevinson's From an Office Window is a match for any of his Continental colleagues.

At Lumley Cazalet in Davies Street, the years 1925-1970 have a more determinedly European feel. There's lots of Picasso, the only artist to make it into all six venues, and Chagall, who, as ever, looks a bit will o' the wisp - he needs a more substantial medium. On the evidence here Matisse is also a disappointing printmaker. His odalisques and girls on flowered divans are stylish enough, but they look more like mechanically reproduced drawings than images which set out to be lithographs,

Braque fares rather better: his little swan, Le Cygne, 1947, worked over with black and white and grey gouache is one of the stars of the Lumley Cazalet selection, as is a later lithograph of a bird silhouetted over a green square. Another Braque bird appears in William Weston's selection of prints from the same period, along with more Matisse, Chagall, Picasso and a number of less expected images including Magritte's splendidly surreal The Green Eye.

More surprising still is the selection at the Mercury Gallery in Cork Street, where a very different exhibition concentrates on the likes of Pierre Alechinsky, Jacques Ducet and Johnny Friedlaender; little known members of a post-war avant-garde. Alongside these are more familiar images by British artists, including linocuts by Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power and a fine lithograph, Cornish Harbour, by William Scott, one of the best printmakers to work in this country since the Second World War, but surprisingly given only this single image in the galleries.

Next door to the Mercury Gallery at Alan Cristea, space is at an even greater premium as the story is brought up to date from 1960 to 1997. Picasso and Braque are squeezed in again, next to a large Flowering Palm by Howard Hodgkin and a nude by Colin Self, the marks made by rolling a naked model across the etching plate. Beuys, Baselitz and Tapies are shown by a single work apiece, although there are three of Naum Gabo's elegantly stripped-down studies of form and space, and two wonderfully simple abstractions by the Spaniard Eduardo Chillada.

The contemporaries continue at Marlborough Graphics in Albemarle Street with a selection that includes Eduardo Paolozzi's complex woodcuts from his 1975 Charles Rennie Mackintosh suite, and two sombre but rather beautiful etchings by Anish Kapoor. Frank Auerbach's etched head of Lucian Freud is one of the best things here, with, of course, Freud himself. Two etchings by Therese Oulton, one of the galleries' younger artists, were awaited, literally hot off the press, the day I was there.

I'm not sure that I'd recommend seeing all six bits of the show at once, there's rather too much to take in, but it is an ambitious and largely successful project which should help to raise the profile of a too-often neglected art.

The Fine Art Society (0171-629 5116); Lumley Cazalet (0171-491 4767); Mercury Gallery (0171-734 7800); William Weston (0171-493 0722); Alan Cristea (0171-439 1866); Marlborough Graphics (0171-629 5161). Until 16 October

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