Anne Breivik: A Norwegian printmaker in an American history museum

By Brooklyn Lile and Joan Boudreau
Flowers and abstract shapes in a print

Researchers of the National Museum of American History’s collections might be surprised to discover more than a dozen examples of the work of printmaker Anne Breivik (1932–2012). Why, they might ask, does an American history museum preserve the work of a Norwegian artist?

Beyond their value as works of art, Breivik's prints illuminate a distinctive feature of the museum’s Graphic Arts Collection. The collection was not originally created to preserve the history of American printing. The museum was, after all, founded as the National Museum of History and Technology, and many older collections are the museum reflect that focus. Thus curators founded the collection to preserve the history of printmaking as a technology—a historical narrative that naturally crosses international borders.

Breivik's technical skill as a printmaker, and in particular her command of viscosity printing, a method of inking many colors on a single plate before printing that's popularly known as the Hayter technique, prompted curators to bring the Norwegian artist’s work into the museum. Breivik's globe-spanning career started in earnest in the 1960s when she studied at Atelier 17, an influential graphic arts workshop in Paris. After leaving Paris, Breivik’s multi-decade career led her to founding her own printmaking studio, Atelier Nord, and serving as a public champion for the arts in Norway.

A square copperplate
Copper plate of “Tidevann” (Tide) by Anne Breivik (GA.23004)
An abstract print
Print of “Tidevann” (Tide) by Anne Breivik (GA.23006)

Like many other printmakers, Breivik began her work by preparing her plate with an engraving. In a catalogue of her 1979 exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, an art gallery in Oslo, Norway, Breivik vividly described how the physicality of printmaking was one of the reasons she was passionate about the art form:

[W]hat makes the copper engraving and etching so exciting is that it literally produces three-dimensional images. . . . [T]he lines are in themselves deep traces of the pointed copper stick, and their imprint will remain in the paper as sculptural elements. Anyone whose fingers are completely clean can run their fingertips over such a sheet and feel for themselves how clean and precise such lines are. The image is palpably three-dimensional.

After the plate was engraved, it was then inked to ready it to produce a print. Breivik often used a multicolor inking technique pioneered by Stanley William Hayter, who Breivik studied under during her time at Atelier 17. The traditional system of one-color-inked printmaking involves the dabbing or rolling of ink, usually black ink, onto the surface of an engraved plate. Artists use various methods to include more than one color in a print. Some use watercolors to hand-color black-inked prints; others dab or roll different colored inks onto the plate, applying different colors to different sections.

A copperplate
Copper plate from the series “Cascades of Overgrowth” by Anne Breivik (1978.2181.06)
Print from the series “Cascades of Overgrowth” by Anne Breivik (1978.2181.01)

The technique uses different colored inks with different thicknesses; the different thicknesses prevent the colors from merging. The thickest inks are the first to be rolled over the entire plate into the engraved lines. Additional layers of differently colored and thinner inks are then consecutively rolled over the plate. With multiple inks in place, artists like Breivik position the engraved side of the plate on the bed of an etching press facing a dampened sheet of paper, then use the power of the press, rolled over the plate and paper, to transfer the inked plate engraving design onto the paper.

A small copperplate of a flower
Copper plate from “Memories of Landscape” by Anne Breivik, 1976 (1978.2181.05)
Print of a flower
Print from “Memories of Landscape” by Anne Breivik, 1976 (1978.2181.07)

Breivik's innovative use of the Hayter technique helped bring her work to the attention of Smithsonian scholars. In 1978 Elizabeth M. Harris, curator emerita at the museum, advocated for acquiring some of Breivik’s works because of her “intelligent and innovative technique,” classifying Breivik as being among the “technological leaders rather than [one of the] mere experimenters.”

Two plates (pictured above) and four prints by Breivik were approved for acquisition in 1978 because they represented an “excellent demonstration of her method of printmaking, from plates through trial proofs to finished book.” Other works by Breivik in the collection include a portfolio-artist book titled Memories of Landscape and a plate and prints for the work “Tidevann Tidevann” (English translation “Tide”).

Breivik’s prints were often abstractions of natural scenes and landscapes, including flowers and plants. Atelier Nord’s profile of Breivik notes that much of her work was “inspired by themes like the cosmos and humanity’s conquest of the universe.” This theme comes through in her correspondence with the museum, especially in a 1978 letter to curator Harris:

On my way back from New York to Oslo I had the most exquisite view of the sunlight playing on, through and among the clouds. Things happened that one can see only from a plane on that particular route. I would like to do a series one day on that theme, which means that I shall have to go back and forth at least once more. If Mr. Badet decides to give me a show—of what we did talk—I will surely come over for that!

While Breivik’s works were originally collected as examples of the use of the Hayter technique, today, we can also appreciate that these plates and prints give us further insights into this international artist’s oeuvre and her potential influences on other mid-twentieth century artists.

This blog is associated with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative and the 2023 Because of Her Story Cohort Internship Program.

Brooklyn Lile (she/her) is a Because of Her Story intern in the museum’s Graphic Arts Collection. She recently graduated with a Master of Arts in History from Western Kentucky University.

Joan Boudreau is serving as a mentor to Brooklyn Lile and co-author of this blog. She is a curator in the Division of Work & Industry, Graphic Arts Collection.