Nature print’s revival?

Abstract: What in retrospect might appear as an astonishing revival of the early modern practice of nature prints in Vienna around 1850, was in fact embedded in a radically new framework of conditions and expectations. The technical procedures included genuinely new networks of cooperating specialists and image-generating causes, and at least promised adaptability for industrial mass production.

Fig. 1: Proof of a Plate in preparation of: Constantin von Ettinghausen/Alois Pokorny, Physiotypa Plantarum Austriacum, Wien 1856.

The Physiotypa Plantarum Austriacum or “Nature printing and its application on the vascular plants of the Austrian Empire …”, a botanical compendium by Constantin von Ettinghausen and Alois Pokorny, came out in 1856 and was the prestigious result of combined efforts. (Fig. 1) One of Europe’s most advanced printing presses at the time met scientific research interests and both together fitted perfectly for highly official political ambitions. The old Habsburg monarchy and its Empire were severely shaken after the 1848 March Revolution and the suppressed uprisings in several parts of the realm: above all Hungary, northern Italy, and the capital Vienna itself. In parallel with the monarchy’s shrinking political leverage, ambitions to reestablish a certain cultural splendor included research activities with expanding global horizons, especially in disciplines such as Botany and Geology.

Within this bigger picture and around 1850 the “K. u. K. Hof und Staatsdruckerei” in Vienna became the initial institution and center for some remarkable projects and connected networks. The printing house was owned by the state and part of the imperial administration. Since the early 1840ies and under the direction of Alois Auer the press increased its production about two-hundredfold within ten years. This expansion was based on several strategic measures: An astounding extension and rationalization of typographic production was accompanied by a systematic investment in the highest quality-standards as well as in innovative printing techniques.

In 1853 Auer published Der polygraphische Apparat – a kaleidoscope of contemporary printing techniques. Besides quite common and traditional procedures such as wood engraving and lithography, the little booklet also comprised the most recent techniques such as “Photography” represented by a photo copy on salt paper, based on a negative; or some “Naturselbstdrucke”, the German term for nature prints. At this time, Auer and his colleagues at the K & K Staatsdruckerei obviously had high expectations, that nature print could become a technique applied to the reproduction of a wide range of things far beyond natural objects and used in much wider areas than the natural sciences.

When in 1854 Alois Auer published a full report of his method of making nature prints, he explicitly spoke about a “discovery” as well as an “invention”. The term “discovery” clearly suggests that the procedure was somehow already there before and independently of Auer himself, something that pre-existed in nature and just had to be adopted by the printmaker. The key objective of this double-characterization however was to underline the absolute novelty of his technology.

There is no word about the long and more or less continuous tradition of making nature prints since the 15th century, even though the author must have been familiar at least with the work of some practitioners from the 18th century. By completely ignoring this tradition he presents his procedure as a further link in a universal chain of humankind’s inventions. This chain begins with the practice of writing in general, followed by movable-type printing. Further examples are the steam engine and its manifold specific uses, and the Daguerreotype, – the other early photographical procedure, based on light-sensitive copperplates and producing images that are always unique and not reproducible. Another ancestor Auer mentions is the Galvano-plastic, invented in 1837.

The author presents his new method as the most recent and specifically Austrian contribution to this glorious history of human ingenuity. He praises it for delivering images of the highest originality, meaning the factual identity between object and print, untouched by any interference of a human’s hand. He further mentions the possibility of printing the object’s natural colors, declares the production would be very cheap and that the technique would finally yield millions of printed copies.

Fig. 2: Printing plate of a single leaf.

Crucial for the indeed new and astonishing esthetic qualities and an unprecedented high quantity of possible copies was the hybrid character of the procedure: In a first step, an initial imprint was made from the object in a very malleable material, basically similar to the early modern practice of making casts from nature. In further steps, the original imprints were transferred on copperplates, this time by use of the above-mentioned Galvano-plastic. (Fig. 2) Galvano-plastic is an electro-chemical process, triggered if two pieces of different metals are submerged in a basin with an electrolytic solution. The electric tension between the two pieces induces a process by which one of the pieces will dissolve, while the particles set free during its dissolution will attach themselves to the other piece of metal. The material work of translating the detailed shapes of the subjects from the original imprint to the final printing plate is achieved by the regulated interaction between the metals, the conductive solutions, and electricity.

As far as we know the adaptation of this technique for nature prints in Vienna was its first application in the area of visual arts and print media. The advantage of this procedure was – besides the relatively low investment in manual labor so far – the existence of the first copperplate – the matrix – and its preservation. From this matrix it was possible to generate new identical printing plates at any time. So the abrasion of printing plates could be compensated permanently – which in theory permitted an endless line of printing.

In practice, neither the “millions of copies” nor an endless line of printing came true. Achieving an image quality at least nearly as high as in these two examples, required a very careful execution of the final printing. This final step had to be done by very experienced printers and involved the same laborious manual tasks as any other intaglio prints. Therefore publications such as the above-mentioned Physiotypa Plantarum Austriacum ended up as rather expensive collectibles for wealthy amateurs and museums.

Fig. 3: Cut-out proofs of nature prints, printed with different inks and on variously prepared paper.

The workflow in the printing plant however seems to have been connected directly to a second site of production, which was more backstage and could be characterized as a combined archive and media laboratory. The materials left behind by some of the protagonists in the Vienna circle contain – besides correspondences and notes – thousands of images. A big part of them are examples of nature prints including many proofs. Together they give insight into a seemingly infinite process of reorganizing the materials according to scientific criteria but also variations motivated by esthetic interests. Many cut-out prints on cheap paper bare handwritten notes with references and hints for future purposes. (Fig. 3) Others show a variant use of ink and paper in order to optimize the visibility of the vascular tissue or to foster a rather painterly appearance. The convolute of these unedited plates, proofs, and snippets underlines the impression that the challenge to handle an enormous amount of visual information was indeed taken up with an adequate obsession.

Text: Robert Felfe

Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Robert Felfe, Nature print’s revival?, in: Spotlight, hrsg./ed. by Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten,, 25.11.2022 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].

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Luisa Feiersinger (2022, 2. Dezember). Nature print’s revival? Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten. Abgerufen am 26. Mai 2024, von

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