Here’s one that got away. I always wanted to acquire a print by Paula Rego for the museum’s collection. For some reason I was always drawn to this image from the series The Pendle Witches. Something about the lone figure afloat in an precarious, upturned tub (in my mind it's an umbrella) really spoke to me. Maybe it’s the feeling of being lost in the chaos of the world as it floats by.
This print is from a series that accompany a group of poems by Blake Morrison, which are based on the true story of the Pendle witch trials in England in 1612 (years before the Salem trials). During the trial of multiple alleged witches, the main testimony came from a young girl who was the daughter of one of the accused. There’s more to it, obviously, but the case is held up as an example of the problems that attend depending on one so young, scared, and incapable of understanding the import of their actions. For me, the drifting figure captures the feeling perfectly.
I wasn't able to acquire it for the museum, but I still love it.
You may be interested in a recent podcast episode from Alan Cristea Gallery featuring Rego and others speaking about her long career and work. An excellent listen. https://cristearoberts.com/podcast/
Even if engraving seems arcane to viewers, there is one print that always impresses. It is the virtuoso engraving by Claude Mellan, The Sudarium of Saint Veronica, 1649. The print shows the sudarium (Latin for sweat cloth) that Veronica used to wipe the sweat off Jesus’ face during a chance encounter (it’s also called Veronica’s veil). It became inexplicably imprinted with an image of Jesus’ face.
If the appearance of Christ’s face on the sudarium was a miracle, perhaps in turn, an artist’s ability to produce such a work might be seen to link their talent to a higher power. The inscription translates to "It is formed by one and no other." As if linking the artist’s talent to the divine wasn’t clear enough. This became Mellan’s calling card demonstrating his prowess with a burin, the tool used to carve the line into the copper plate.
In Mellan’s composition, Jesus’ face is rather straight forward and remarkably symmetrical. Christ looks defeated and resigned with his eyes slightly downcast, and he is shown with droplets of blood from the crown of thorns that pierce his skin. The edges of the cloth are shown in a tromp l’oeil manner, meaning intended to fool the eye with their realism. It looks like the edges are curling off the sheet.
This artifact foreshadows Jesus’ passion, conveyed through Veronica (the name derives from the Greek word for truth), and gives us the truth of his pain. While it may elicit a feeling of gratitude and hope for those that are spiritually Christian, for others, it may seem like a trope. But either way, I think we all can appreciate this landmark of printmaking.
Here’s the part where I get to say this print “rewards scrutiny,” a phrase I used often in the museum’s studyroom. Look closer. Then zero in on Christ’s nose. Begin at Christ’s nose and follow the line outward. Keep going. Right.
The image is made by increasing and decreasing the width of the single line created by carving into the copper plate. It’s really a jaw dropper, isn’t it? How in the world did he manage it? It boggles the mind. It always leaves an impression on me.
Pictured is the impression of Mellan's print from the Art Institute of Chicago, chosen because one can zoom in pretty tightly to marvel at the line work. You can find it here: https://www.artic.edu/.../the-sudarium-of-saint-veronica
Ben and I talk about why prints are awesome all the time (especially in episodes 7 and 8 of our podcast Platemark, which will be released later this summer). One key factor: the layers of translation from one step to another in the process. It takes planning and lots of decision-making to think through all the steps, which slows the artist down and makes them consider every aspect of the proposed work. Sherrie Levine’s portfolio Meltdown, 1989, is a perfect example of multiple transitions/translations in the making of the physical object in concert with multiple layers of conceptual ideas.
Meltdown is a portfolio of four woodcuts by Levine who is best known for challenging ideas of authenticity and originality. She often uses appropriation, either specifically or generally, as well as art history as a central element. Meltdown combines many of these concerns.
The four woodcuts were printed by Maurice Shanchez at Derrière L’Etoile Studios, and the portfolio was published by Peter Blum Editions. Each print consists of twelve squares of color. They are, in my mind, purely beautiful, but they also offer up serious layers and conceptual rigor.
In the project’s first step, reproductions of four works of art—paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Piet Mondrian, and Claude Monet, plus Marcel Duchamp’s altered postcard of the Mona Lisa—were scanned from art history textbooks and a computer algorithm averaged the colors in each image into twelve pixels. Those twelve colors were approximated (expertly) into various inks and rolled onto square blocks of wood that were jigged together and then printed.
So, we have the original artwork, the photograph taken of said artwork, the image as it was reproduced in an art history textbook (or other source), which was scanned to produce yet another derivation of the image. Only then does the human hand and eye of Maurice Sanchez step in to mix the inks. Then, to top it all off, the images that have been pushed through these multiple steps end up as woodcuts, the oldest, least techno form of printmaking.
Plus, think about how many actors are in this play. There is the artist of the original painting (Kirchner, Monet, Mondrian—Duchamp is a special case, more on that in a sec, plus Leonardo), the photographer of the original work of art, the person and technology that created the halftone version of the photograph that would appear in a textbook, Levine who scanned the images, the computer program that averaged the colors, Sanchez who approximated those colors, and us, the viewers who bring our own perception to viewing the prints. With the after-Duchamp woodcut, there’s a whole other level of remove from Duchamp’s starting point back to the Mona Lisa. Those are a lot of layers.
And let’s not forget that you are seeing a reproduction on your screen that is several steps beyond the original woodcuts. Levine is commenting on the varying nature of reproduction and appropriation of others’ images. How true is any translation of an image in one mode to another? At every stage of the trajectory the colors could have shifted to something else, either wildly or with great subtlety. It all feels extremely random and intentional all at the same time. And the bonus: in the end the prints are just so dang beautiful.
Maybe you CAN have it all.
While teaching young artists about prints, it’s easy to think they won’t respond to works made before 1960, but they can and do. There is a quartet of engravings from 1588 called The Disgracers that were always a highlight in Tru Ludwig’s History of Prints class. They are by Hendrick Goltzius and portray four male nude figures falling. Each engraving offers a muscular male in different views of nearly the identical pose. The four men are Icarus, Ixion, Phaethon, and Tantalus. Each of them had tried to enter the realm of the gods and were sentenced to eternal torture for their hubris. Kinda like the ancient Greek version of the fall of man.
I’m guessing the students reacted to the same things I do in the prints: the artist’s audacity in portraying figures with such weird and difficult foreshortening; describing textures and patterns with surprisingly regimented engraved marks; giving a convincing sense of falling; portraying gentlemen-bits, as it were. (I can’t recall another example of such views of male nudes. Let me know if you can.)
I also respond to them as a captured moment that tells the whole story of each flawed character without much context or narrative. I love the tondo shape (why aren’t they referred to simply as round?), and the text that runs around the circumference. It’s almost like we are looking through a telescope at them falling through the sky. The perspective and compositions are so startling after looking at standing figure after standing figure, they always elicited oohs and ahhs from the students.
One might think the set of four would come to the museum together, having been originally collected as a group. But when I arrived at the museum there were only three of the four already in the collection and they all were, oddly, from different gifts. The missing print was Phaethon. I’m sure I wasn’t the only curator ever to work in the collection who kept an eye out to acquire the fourth print, but it took seven years to find one. It was like finding the long-lost last piece of the puzzle, and it still makes me expel a long sigh to think of them all together. There is just something wonderful about being able to show all four to students and visitors in the study room.
The Disgracers are so well known to scholars of Western printmaking, you don’t even need to mention the artist’s name. Subsequent artists have been inspired by their compositions and messages and have borrowed from them to create their own take on them. For instance, there is a street artist in France named Žilda whose 2010 Liber Casus features wheat-pasted paintings of falling figures installed on buildings and bridges in Paris, Rennes, and Belgrade. And there is another artist, Baptiste Debombourg, who in 2012 created a mural based on Phaethon from The Disgracers using many thousands of staples. Yes, staples.
Lawrence Goedde sums up their use of the falling figure well: “For both, the artifice of Goltzius’s series clearly provokes, intrigues, and challenges as they adapt his imagery to new purposes. Žilda sees the falling figures pasted high above passersby in urban settings as destabilizing the familiar world of the streets, provoking reflection on falling as a metaphor for the necessity of risk-taking amid the general indifference and banality of ordinary life. Debombourg finds in the heroic scale of Mannerist male nudes a metaphor for societal, and especially male, violence as seen in popular super-heroes, an aggression and familiarity that he sees as echoed in the way staples are driven into board and their utter ubiquity.” (https://apps.carleton.edu/kettering/goedde/)
While Žilda and Debombourg’s Goltzius-inspired works are not prints, a third artist, David Avery, created a set of four etchings that stays closer to Goltzius’ scale and compositions in their inclusion of the text around the circumference of each. But Avery has changed the characters in order to comment about issues facing us today. Safe, Clean, Cheap: Phaeton in the 21st Century, 2011, highlights issues of the environment and its imminent destruction at our hands. Too Close to the Sun, 2013, points at human’s problematic fascination with phones and screens. Running on Empty, 2016, critiques America’s dependence on big oil. And the last in the set, Mendacia Ridicula, 2018 (Latin for ridiculous lying), satirizes politicians and the divisiveness that has come from all that lying.
I appreciate it when artists look to historical examples. It reinforces the idea that they know upon whose shoulders they stand. Wouldn’t it be cool to pull together a group of contemporary works with Goltzius’ engravings for an exhibition about inspiration and artistic heroes? I’m sure there are more examples of artists looking at The Disgracers. Let me know who comes to mind.
There is deep richness to be found in the history of prints. Lucky for us, there are plenty of places to see prints like these and many curators and scholars who are happy to talk about them.
Prints pop up everywhere. But did you ever expect to eat on them? Engravings of bucolic scenes, flora, and fauna have been transferred to ceramics since the technique was developed in England in the 1750s. Highly decorated dinnerware was previously hand painted, costly, and meant for the aristocracy. As a way of getting decorative serving sets to the growing middle classes, the transfer process was developed and has been used ever since. You probably have some in your cupboard even now.
Andrew Raftery, one of very few contemporary engravers, has collected transferware for a long time as he contemplated creating a set of dinner plates of his own design. Eight years in the making, Autobiography of a Garden on Twelve Engraved Plates was finally released in 2016 (the set was published by Mary Ryan Gallery). The set of twelve plates represent the twelve months of the year, each showing Raftery engaged in thinking about, planning, and working in his garden.
Raftery’s process is extensive. Scale models of each scene were made, studies and grisaille drawings were executed, and each plate’s shape was designed by the artist (each shape is unique). And that’s before he began engraving the copper plates, a laborious process in itself. No wonder it took eight years to complete the project. Oh, and he designed wallpaper that the plates may be hung upon. It’s quite an accomplishment.
The set was among the final objects I acquired for the museum. Glad to have accomplished that last purchase.
Lately, Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (Listening Devices), a photogravure I acquired for the museum in 2015, has been rolling through my mind. It consists of a grid of images of devices that are posed as if having their portraits taken. The image at lower right is a simple megaphone, while next to it is the classic two cans connected by a string. Other squares are occupied by old fashioned telephones. Missing, of course, are references to smart phones of any kind. Might this be a nod to a simpler time? Or is it a nod to that old game of Telephone in which a sentence is whispered person to person resulting in a statement that bears no resemblance to the original. Does it point to ideas about failures to communicate? For me, it reflects both a plea for the simple act of listening and of being tired of talking.
Last summer I listened to the podcast from Serial, Nice White Parents, and was mortified to think of my own patterns of behavior, unintentional or not. It was an important eye opener about my own position of privilege. And recently (thanks to Ben Levy for the recommendation), I listened to a talk by Dr. Meranda Roberts, who spoke about the significance of land acknowledgments in colonial spaces like museums. Learning how to de-center oneself is difficult. It all feels overwhelming, but it is crucial.
The reason Weems’ photogravure keeps popping into my brain relates to this distinction noted by Roberts:
• White savior: thinks it’s her job to give black women a voice.
• White ally: knows it’s her responsibility to listen to the black voices that are already speaking.
It’s not up to others to educate us, but it is on us to actively listen when they speak. It is we who need to do our own work.
When I pitched this photogravure to my colleagues, I think they thought it wasn’t as representative of Weems’ work as they might want. But I persisted in my conviction that its universal message of listening with intention was equally powerful. I don’t think the museum has had a chance to exhibit the work yet—although I don’t know since I have only returned to the building once since I left.
There is so much learning and unlearning that must be done personally and collectively in the art world and museums regarding racism, sexism, pay equity, decolonization, land acknowledgements, and so many other things. And I need to start with me and recognize that it is not about me at all.
Carrie Mae Weems (American, born 1953)
Untitled (Listening Devices), 2014
Printer/Publisher: Segura Arts Studio
Sheet: 1308 x 1079 mm. (51 1/2 x 42 1/2 in.)
Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2015 Contemporary Print Fair, 2015.161
We’ve looked at many fin-de-siècle artists who made their livings making commercial work for magazines and journals and some who made a living selling fine art prints. But how many artists have we looked at who considered themselves painters who begrudgingly made prints to support themselves? Auguste Lepère was all three.
A contemporary critic wrote of his frustration: “To the world, and especially the foreign world, the name of Lepère is chiefly familiar from his engravings and notably his woodcuts. The artist himself, however, considered these merely as auxiliary to his oils. ‘I am, above all, a painter’, he would say remindfully if a suggestion were made to attribute preeminence to his plates and blocks. For originally he had taken up engraving as a breadwinning makeshift, and it was much against his wish that the popularity they won robbed him of the time he would for choice have spent at the easel.”
Well, you can’t control what the viewer thinks or likes, can you? Lucky for us, Lepère was an amazing printmaker. He did it all: wood engraving, woodcut, etching, lithograph. Mostly the subjects are everyday life in and around Paris. They range from laundresses and dock workers to a new middle class enjoying a day off in the park. Today, as we are just emerging from a year in lockdown, these Parisian scenes are a balm to my soul. I can’t wait to get on a plane and go enjoy a croissant with my cafe au lait.
I happen to love Lepère’s wood engravings, especially those printed on an almost translucent Japanese tissue paper. So delicate. They always stunned students in the study room. I’d hand them a loop and tell them to look at, say, the smoke emanating from a smokestack and their jaws would drop. I included details here, grabbed as best as I could from the web. Take a look at some of them. And there’s a wood block, too. Amazing mark making.
Don't miss the Cleveland Museum's sets of studies and the final woodcut toward the end. These all date to 1914 and appropriately reflect the turmoil of World War I. Bucolic escapes are no more. Lepère died toward the end of the war.
Here’s the final Grosvenor School post (for now, anyway), featuring the man who started it all, Claude Flight. I find it fascinating that his work kinda gets at the aesthetic we have come to expect from the group, but many of his prints are wholly different. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the studio, to see who developed what first, who picked it up, and who pushed who, etc. Imagine being surrounded by so much color and motion.
This is what I love about printmaking. Because of the need for shared equipment and supplies, artists work together, side-by-side with like-minded artists. All this togetherness might lead to friendly competition or alignment of sentiment, and the results might lead to unplanned and exciting discoveries.
Flight took up linoleum cutting as early as 1919 and fell in love with it. It was easy to procure and not so costly, plus its ease of cutting seemed perfect as a route to making it possible for the masses to be exposed to art. More, cheaper, faster. He saw in it the potentiality of a truly democratic art form. Sounds a little like previous movements that attempted to bring art into every home, like William Morris' arts and crafts movement, doesn't it? Just in an updated, modern way.
Here's Claude Flight.
Recently I shared a post about Sybil Andrews, which seemed to strike a chord if the number of likes and shares is any indication. Her multi-color, multi-block linoleum cuts, like those of her compatriot Grosvenor School artists, celebrated modern life in 1930s England. Today we’re looking at linoleum cuts by Andrews’ close friend and studio mate Cyril Power, who focused mostly on modes transportation, particularly the London Underground.
Like Andrews, Power was on the staff at the Grosvenor School when it was founded by Iain Macnab and Claude Flight in 1925. The latter was responsible for the growing interest in multi-color, multi-block linoleum cuts celebrating the speed of modernity. Power himself was a lecturer at the school. He was also a noted scholar of architecture and penned the three-volume A History of English Mediaeval Architecture, which included 424 of his own illustrations and designs. But he’s best known for the linoleum cuts he made alongside Andrews and Flight.
Andrews and Power shared a studio for twenty years, giving it up in 1938 (they were both married to other people). Power served at home during the war as a surveyor for a Heavy Rescue Squad (he had also served in World War I), and after the war turned primarily to painting in oils. He died at 78 in 1951.
Even when Power’s images are of static, stable things, they feel as if they are in motion. I might even say that he captures motion and potential energy better than Andrews. There’s a reason their compositions are among the best known coming out of the Grosvenor School. They were two of the best. See if you agree.
I love Sybil Andrews’ sensibility. Like Ursula Fookes and Ethel Spowers, who we met recently, Andrews, no surprise, was a part of the Grosvenor School of artists focused on multi-block color linoleum cuts exploring the speed of urban contemporary life primarily during the 1930s in England. I love that she explores speed literally through images of raceways and steeplechases. But she also does something surprising by focusing on rural life and agriculture in that same modernist mode. A bit antithetical. She also created a series of the stations of the cross (I’ll let you look those up on your own).
Andrews worked as a secretary at the Grosvenor School beginning in 1925 and soon began making linoleum cuts under the school’s leader, Claude Flight. She became close friends with Cyril Power (I promise, I will cover both Flight and Power soon), sharing a studio until 1938, as well as collaborating under the pseudonym Andrew-Power. During World War II, while working as a welder in a factory, she met her husband Walter Morgan. The couple emigrated to Canada and settled on Vancouver Island in 1947. She continued making color linoleum cuts well into the 1970s.
I love that Andrews has such a strong point of view. I love the palette and the colors’ vibrancy. I love the high-design sense and reductiveness of the objects. I love the range of subjects. Well, there is not much about her work I don’t love.
Please meet Sybil Andrews.
What happens if you live in Melbourne in the early part of the twentieth century in an era of pretty conservative art making? How do you learn about what is going on in Europe and other places that are so far away? There is no television, no internet.
Why, one goes to libraries and book stores to find publications that might expand one’s horizons. One such oasis of cosmopolitan culture in Melbourne was found at the Depot Bookshop run by the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria. It was there in 1928 that a young artist named Eveline Syme came across a small booklet called Lino-Cuts, written by Claude Flight.
Claude Flight was the well-known teacher at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London who was the defacto leader of a group of printmakers named for the school. (We recently met Lill Tschudi and Ursula Fookes who both studied there.) Syme and another young artist, Ethel Spowers, would have seen the school advertised in The Studio, the leading British art-periodical also available at the Depot Bookshop. Both women were so taken by the illustrations in Flight's booklet that they traveled to London and enrolled—Spowers arrived in late 1928, and Syme came a few months later, in 1929.
Located in London's Warwick Square, the Grosvenor School was an informal place that offered up random courses. It had a growing reputation due mainly to Flight who was one of its charismatic teachers. He inspired many artists to work in linoleum cuts in multiple colors (one block for each color) and to adopt Flight’s method of using both printing ink and oil paint to achieve particular color effects. Flight promoted the idea of the democratic virtue of linoleum cuts as a cheap commodity in an overpriced art market. (The Grosvenor School closed its doors in 1940.)
Syme wrote about Flight and his style: “Sometimes in his classes it is hard to remember that he is teaching, so complete is the camaraderie between him and his students. He treats them as fellow-artists rather than pupils, discusses with them and suggests to them, never dictates or enforces. At the same time he is so full of enthusiasm for his subject, and his ideas are so clear and reasoned that it is impossible for his students not to be influenced by them."
Today’s artist, Spowers, studied with Flight from 1928 to 1930, went home for a bit, and returned to London in 1931 for a spell. During her time back home in 1930, she mounted a show, Exhibition of Linocuts, at the Everyman Lending Library in Melbourne that featured her prints as well as those by Syme and fellow Aussie Dorrit Black. In turn, the three women all found an outlet at the Modern Art Center established in Sydney by Black in 1931. Spowers also acted as an informal agent for Flight, promoting his work down under. Spowers, sadly, died of cancer at the young age of 56 in 1947.
Meanwhile, in England, influential touring exhibitions, arranged in conjunction with the Redfern Gallery, traveled around promoting the linoleum cuts of the Grosvenor School, and included the work of the Australian women. Linoleum cut prints by the artists of the Grosvenor School were popular until they seemed too colorful and optimistic in the face of the War. They fell off the radar and it wasn’t until the 1970s that there was really any market for them. Now, of course, their prices are sky high.
There are artists associated with the Grosvenor School that are well known (Sybil Andrews, Lill Tschudi, Claude Flight, and Cyril Power), and then there are others who are less well known. Meet Ursula Fookes, about whom very little is available online. She studied with Claude Flight at the Grosvenor School in 1929–31, which is where the color linoleum cut celebrating speed and modern life was a central subject.
Following her studies, not much is known except that she spent the last months of the war on the Continent running a mobile canteen, which was a war-era version of a food truck. (She kept a rather compelling diary of that time, which is preserved at the Imperial War Museum.) After the war she seems to have moved to the country and ceased showing her art (or possibly stopped making any). Details are a bit fuzzy. Hopefully some industrious PhD student will take her on and flush out Fookes' herstory.
Fookes’ sensibility is different than that of other artists we’ve looked at (see recent post on Lill Tschudi). It’s a bit less frenetic, perhaps a bit more staid. But I love discovering lesser-known artists within a movement. What makes their work less desirable than others who become the face of said movement? Is it just a matter of exposure? Is it that Fookes didn't create much art after this initial push and fell off the proverbial radar? Did the other artists do something different? Did they have different relationships with galleries, dealers, curators? Curious.
A year ago, today, a few weeks into the first lock down in March 2020, I found my voice. It had been 2.5 years since I left my position as a museum curator and 2.5 years of mourning said career. I’ve said it before: I never wanted anything else but to be a curator. Certainly it is a career choice that has its flaws, not the least of which is the dismal remuneration. I can’t think of a more highly educated and underpaid group of people than those working in the museum sector. It’s appalling, really.
So, after 2.5 years of depression, it took a world-wide pandemic to get me off my ass. The truth is, I was terrified that if I were taken out by Covid-19, which in those early days seemed entirely possible (recognizing my privilege here in my ability to work from home), there were a few things I wanted to have said out loud. I wanted to leave some trace of my legacy in the field, some record that my kids could refer to later and say, hey, my mom did a thing.
The plan was to share stories about the many objects I acquired for the museum’s collection, which, by the way, are the things I miss the most. They all feel personal to me: I found them, researched them, prepared a convincing pitch, and got them through the system. I even got some of them hung on the museum’s walls—no easy feat. I miss being able to look at them at will and I miss sharing them with visitors. But, in truth, these posts are sort of equivalent to sharing objects in the studyroom. Nothing will ever replace seeing a work in person, of course, but this is something I can do to share my passions with you.
Back in March 2020, I started with a short entry on Jim Dine’s Raven on Lebanese Border, 2000. Second, I dropped way back to 1807 to talk about a British watercolor by Robert Hills. In these first two selections you can sense how all over the place I am. And that is what I love about working with prints, drawings, and photographs. You can be deep in Rembrandt one day, pop up to Elizabeth Catlett the next day, divert to Edouard Manet for a bit, skate by Robert Blackburn, and end up at Ann Hamilton. Perfect for a curious person with a mild case of ADD.
I intended to write about every acquisition I made for the museum, one per day, and keep them short and pithy, but I couldn’t keep up that pace. Besides, there are many other objects and topics about which I want to write. Since I started a year ago, I’ve written eighty-plus entries. To tell you the truth, the writing is the easy part. Gathering the images and all the tombstone information takes the most time. But the enterprise gives me great satisfaction. I am always excited to share a cool print or beautiful drawing with people I know will appreciate it. I hope you keep reading, learning, and enjoying these posts.
Jim Dine (American, born 1935). Published by Pace Editions, Inc., New York; printed by Julia D'Amario. Raven on Lebanese Border, 2000. Sheet: 781 × 864 mm. (30 3/4 × 34 in.); plate: 676 × 768 mm. (26 5/8 × 30 1/4 in.). Soft ground etching and woodcut with white paint (hand coloring). Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of the Print, Drawing & Photograph Society, BMA 2007.224.
Let’s talk about monoprints, selective wiping, and variable etching. With printing intaglio plates (intaglio is Italian for incising a design into a plate, usually copper or zinc, and is the umbrella term under which we find engraving, etching, drypoint, etc.), the default is to ink the plate so that the incised lines carry ink that will transfer to damp paper as it is put through a press under immense pressure. If that basic image is wiped tight (meaning virtually no ink left on the surface), you’ll get the image and nothing extra. Not a bad proposition, necessarily. But, over the centuries, artists have experimented with leaving some ink on the surface of the plate to add some tonality and atmosphere. Add even more ink to the surface and something entirely new is created. Read on about a great example of this kind of additive inking.
Back in 2011, the museum mounted an exhibition called Print by Print: Series from Dürer to Lichtenstein. It included twenty-nine series of prints—each in its entirety—and looked at seriality and the many reasons artists work this way. You hardly ever get the chance to see complete series of prints framed and on the wall, and the show included series that are heavy hitters in the history of prints. Some of the highlights included Durer’s Apocalypse and Piranesi’s Carceri, Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War, Ed Ruscha’s News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews, and Dues, Sherrie Levine’s Meltdown, and Andrew Raftery’s Real Estate Open House. The exhibition really was a feast for the eyes.
But the most remarkable was a group of etchings by Vicomte Ludovic Lepic (French, 1839–1889). I’m gonna guess you’re thinking, who? Lepic was one of the artists who pushed variable wiping to its fullest. These are what we now call monoprints (it’s easy to get confused by the difference between monoprints and monotypes—monoprints start with some image already in the matrix; monotypes are created on a surface that carries no image so each is entirely unique). Twenty impressions of Lepic’s plate were grouped together on the longest wall in the show, each with a different look. They are among the gems of the BMA’s print collection.
To be honest, the set of twenty variably wiped etchings doesn’t really qualify as a series. They were not intended to be published as a complete unit. Rather they are a substantial group of prints that are aligned because they use the same matrix in their creation. (Notice my use of the word set to describe them, rather than series. This is bringing out the cataloguer in me.) In fact, I believe Lepic made more versions of this etching, which the BMA does not own. That they don’t strictly fit into the defining principle of the exhibition is not a huge deal, really, especially when they are so instructive, mind-bogglingly beautiful, and can hold any wall anytime anywhere.
The etching is a scene on the Scheldt river, which flows northward from France through Belgium and into Holland. First up is an impression wiped tight, meaning no extra ink was left on the surface of the plate. After that follow plates in which ink has been added to the surface to create wholly other compositions: weather effects, different times of day, and the addition of entire trees. They are wonderful examples of how variable wiping can completely alter an image in the best ways.
Ludovic Lepic was a French aristocrat who is best known as an etcher and as the subject of several paintings by his good friend, Edgar Degas. Lepic was a painter and sculptor, a costume designer, an amateur archeologist (he founded an archeological museum), a breeder of dogs, an avid sailor, and an equestrian. But for us, his variable etching technique (he called it eau-forte mobile) had a huge impact on modern printmaking. Lepic learned etching from Charles Verlat (1824–1890) and created his first significant etching in 1860. He rapidly became a skilled etcher and in 1862 was invited to join the Société des Aqua-fortistes (The Society of Etchers), formed by art dealer Alfred Cadart (1828-1875) and others to publish original etchings. His etchings were exhibited in annual Salons from 1863 until 1886.
Lepic was also involved with the Impressionists. Degas invited him to join with fifteen other artists to form an association to sponsor independent exhibitions, which lead to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Lepic helped plan this seminal exhibition and showed seven works, watercolors, and etchings. He also showed forty-two works at the 1876 Impressionist exhibition. In the ensuing years he continued to paint, make etchings, create costumes for the Paris opera, and work on his sailboat. He died in 1889.
Please meet Ludovic Lepic.
While I object to designating a single month to paying attention to women--why four weeks per year and why is this really necessary--here we are. I recently (not during the designated month--horrors!) wrote about some early female printmakers: Diana Scultori, Elisabetta Sirani, and Geertruydt Roghman. But, if you’ve been following along, you know my heart is in the twentieth century. So, please meet Lill Tschudi (1911–2004), a Swiss artist best known for her multi-color linoleum cuts of 1930s London.
As a teenager Tschudi had already decided she wanted to be a printmaker after seeing an exhibition of prints by Austrian artist Norbertine Bresslern-Roth (she's worth a look). Determined to pursue printmaking, Tschudi spent two years (1929–30) in London beginning at age eighteen, studying with Claude Flight, a key member of the Grosvenor School, a group of printmakers making color linoleum cuts. Other members include Sybil Andrews, Cyril Power, Dorrit Black, and William Greengrass.
The artists of the Grosvenor School used multiple blocks of linoleum—one for each color—to create images that celebrate modernity and the machine age in a signature style that exploits rhythmically dynamic patterns. Subjects range from the London underground’s labyrinthine stations and escalators, and horse, car, and bike races, to farmers and other manual laborers, and musicians and other performers. (Linoleum was a fairly new material used in the arts. It had been invented as floor covering in England in 1860 and later was adapted to printmaking.)
After two years studying with Flight, Tschudi spent several years in Paris before returning to her native Switzerland. In Paris she studied with cubist artist André Lhote, futurist artist Gino Severini at the Academie Ronson, and Fernand Léger at the Académie Moderne. By 1935 she was back at home in Schwanden, a village in a mountainous region in eastern Switzerland known for its textile industry. In the ensuing years she made more than three hundred linoleum cuts and maintained a business relationship with Flight, who acted as her dealer in England where most of her works sold.
So why am I attracted to her prints--well, all of the Grosvenor School, really? I’ve always loved bold graphic images. I love a stripe, a circle, a square, anything geometric; I am much less attracted to paisley or anything fussy. I have often wondered if it goes back to the mid-century modern décor I grew up with in the late sixties and seventies (love me some Marimekko). Cuz, you know, it’s all what you grow up with. I also love it when forms are reduced to their essential elements. And how cool is it that she got motion out of those reductive forms? I just love them. Lucky for us, a large collection of works by Tschudi sold at Christie's in 2012, including a number of preparatory drawings for prints. You'll find some here along with their prints.
The Big Bang. How do you express the formation of the planet and its inhabitants, and what kind of craziness had to come together to create the elements that, put together, make humans capable of thought, creativity, love? It’s really all dumb luck, isn’t it?
I recently helped Tru Ludwig print a rather large etching tackling this concept, Dumb Luck, 2009. The composition is a ring of periodic table elements swirling around a human brain set against a galaxy of stars. That brain is a zinc plate cut to fit into the center of the copper plate. The image is printed in blue-black (on the copper plate) and deep red (on the zinc plate).
Scribing the element symbols took Tru three months to complete. I believe it. They are intricate, delicate discs floating on an aquatinted galaxy of stars and planets. Three bright white, far-off stars are drilled holes in the plate that carry no ink. They are a small yet vital part of the composition. Then there is a set of blessing hands at lower left. So, in addition to pondering the dumb luck that enables our existence, it raises questions about whether a higher power had a hand in our design.
I love this print. I’ve always loved looking at pictures of the stars and galaxies and I’ve always been amazed by the Big Bang theory. How could it be that all this was created without some sort of intentionality? I’m not a particularly religious person, but it does make one wonder. That Tru figured out a way to convey this mystery astounds me.
You may recall that Tru and I printed another of his prints, Ask Not…, last weekend, during which I was sort of helpful. I think I graduated to really helpful printing Dumb Luck. By the end of the session, I was wiping that little brain without supervision. I was wiping those element discs. I even came up with a method of quickly removing the first layer of ink—I’m pretty proud of that. We fell into the print-shop ballet that will be familiar to anyone who prints.
I loved being in the studio and it reignited my long-held desire to open a print shop and publish prints. If only I would win the lottery in order to be able to do so. <sigh>
There’s one part of being a curator that may shock you. There is no requirement that a curator has ever made a work of art in the manner of those objects they study and work with on the job. I mean, they have to know the basics and be able to describe them, but they don’t have to have done it themselves. I’ve watched lots of demos, made a linoleum cut in grade school (still have the scar to prove it), and I’ve been on hand during the printing process, but have always been the extra pair of hands. I’ve never inked, daubed, wiped, and printed a plate. Until recently, that is.
If you’ve been following along, you know that Tru Ludwig and I have been friends and colleagues for a good long time. Tru is the MICA professor with whom I taught history of prints for over a decade. I have also told you that Tru and I have traveled together to take in exhibitions and art fairs: New York, Philadelphia, Washington, London, Paris. We’ve shared a lot of hotel rooms, meals, and more than our share of vodka martinis (dirty and really dirty, respectively). But you probably don’t know that Tru is a kickass printmaker. I’ve always admired his woodcuts—there is one in the Baltimore Museum’s collection and I used it frequently for classes in the studyroom. And I’ve seen just about all of his other works. But one had always eluded me, Ask Not...—I’d only seen it in a pretty bad, discolored reproduction. But I knew it was special and that I would give a lot to have an impression.
Lucky for me, the plate for Ask Not..., with Jackie and JFK as Pietà, is in fine shape, even after sitting in storage for twenty plus years. After a bit of Weenol, it was ready for its closeup. We managed to pull three impressions on Saturday. Jeepers, it’s a big plate.
I was surprised by the amount of ink needed to cover the plate, both less and more than I thought. I was surprised how long it took to wipe the plate. I was surprised by how many variations of wiping went into the enterprise. And it confirmed for me that wiping and printing are just as critical as the making of the plate. It really was an education. And of course, there’s no better teacher than Tru.
So, the print, Ask Not.... It’s a mash up of a critical piece of American history portrayed in the manner of an important Renaissance artwork by none other than Michelangelo (love a nod to art history), and turns the focus to not the main character (JFK), but a supporting one (the first lady). Tru’s etching gives us Jackie Kennedy holding the limp, dead body of President Kennedy on her lap in the same way the Virgin Mary holds the dead Christ in Michelangelo’s glorious marble sculpture. (If you’ve never seen the Pietà in St. Peter’s at the Vatican, don’t miss it if you get to Rome. Seriously.) It’s a simple gesture, but so full of meaning, emotion, power. (Remember, less is sometimes more.)
Sometimes an image socks you in the gut. Like the Virgin in the Pietà, the image of Jackie holding JFK reminds us of her grace under extraordinary circumstances. Here she is still wearing the pink suit that had been splattered and soaked with the blood of her husband. It is well known that the first lady kept that suit on throughout the long day following the death of the president. She understood the power of images and was heard to say: “let them see what they've done."
JFK is being cradled by an American flag, which seems to puddle along with our hope for the future. Tru’s draftsmanship is spot-on. And there’s something about the action of the corrosive acid used to etch the copper plate that lends itself to the subject. It feels like the copper is fighting to be turned into something, in the same way that we are fighting to be seen and heard and acknowledged. That the country’s sorrow should not be in vain. That at this point in our history, we should take a moment to remember what we have all fought for, and what so many have died for.
There’s something at once delicate and harsh about the technique and about the subject. A pure confluence of content and method. It all feels more timely than ever.
I gave a talk to the Lewes (Delaware) Historical Society last week. With the option to talk about anything, I focused on American prints from 1900-1950. Fair warning: it runs nearly an hour.
Self-taught. Self. Taught. One of the most remarkable etchers of the first half of the twentieth century taught himself how to etch after his wife gave him an “etching kit” for Christmas. What the hell. John Taylor Arms (American, 1887–1953) made stunning etchings of architecture in New York, Europe, and Japan, and Mexico. No doubt his experience as an architect gave him a leg up. In those days, there were no computers with CAD programs to assist with rendering buildings. Back then, architects hand drew every drawing for a project. With that bit of information, Arms’ etchings make more sense. They are, after all, seriously accurate images of architecture. But still.
Interestingly, rather than portraying contemporary buildings, Arms more often portrayed Gothic architecture, which he considered “the most significant expression of man’s aspirations.” His early etchings focus on New York’s skyscrapers, but he soon decided “I can admire the skyscrapers of New York, that unbelievable city which is a very gold mine for the architectural etcher, but I do not love them and I cannot etch what I do not love.” Once New York lost its appeal as a subject, Arms traveled extensively making detailed drawings of towns and churches across Europe and Mexico that would be the basis of etchings once he was back home. He made some five hundred etchings during his fifty-year career and was quite successful over the course of his lifetime.
Why do I love his etchings? After all, they are hyper-realistic, full of fine details, and are highly representational. They don’t exactly fall into my tight-conceptual-circle model. What gives? Maybe it’s because they take me away to whatever place is represented. And maybe those day-dreamy trips have an extra hold on me during these long winter, quarantine days. Wouldn’t it be nice to be riding a vaporetto along the Grand Canal passing the Ca’ d’Oro? I can almost smell the sea air and every other scent that comes with wandering around Venice.
Also, I can’t wrap my head around how he portrays the crumbling stone texture of the gargoyles, the intricacies of Venetian facades, the church porticos, not to mention the reflections, light, and shadows. He apparently used sewing needles and magnifying glasses to make such fine marks.
But the image that I really want for myself is Wasp, the image of two planes dive-bombing some target or other, printed in blue ink. I love the flatness of the image, the pattern made by the searchlights, the potential energy of the planes. It sits at the intersection of abstraction and representation and it hits so many notes. Love. It.
The end of a fair is always bittersweet. One is exhausted both physically and mentally, and yet, you want it to never end. The adrenaline is followed by such a let-down. If you’ve been following along, you know that I ran the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair in its final three iterations (2012, 2015, 2017). For the first two of these I worked alongside the indomitable and amazing Ben Levy. He brought his remarkable brain, knowledge, and know-how to the enterprise. For the final iteration, I worked with the indefatigable and fabulous Morgan Dowty. Her quiet strength and constancy amazed me. And the fairs would not have happened without them. Thank you both.
Running a fair is not for the faint of heart. But in the same way your love of a newborn baby makes you forget the pain of childbirth, the buzz of the fair long outlasts the exhaustion and sore feet. I always say it was the most fun part of the job. And I still mean it. It was an honor getting to know the dealers, publishers, and artists, just as it was meaningful to walk friends and collectors around and point out things I particularly liked both for me and for the museum’s collection. And that’s the great thing about prints, isn’t it? That one can have the same work of art that is in a museum collection. I love spreading the love.
Today is the final day of these Curator’s Choice posts from the #LondonOriginalPrintFair, and while it takes a lot of work to select and gather the images and tombstone information (not to mention writing these mini-blurbs), its conclusion is bittersweet. I hope the cornucopia of images have inspired you to look more, buy something, make something. For that is always my goal: to engage an audience and show them the wonders of prints and printmaking. Until the next fair, this is your friendly print evangelist signing off.
Please enjoy day 5/5 of offerings from the #LondonOriginalPrintFair. Today we finish up with R (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery) through Z (Zuleika Gallery).
Here is #LondonOriginalPrintFair Curator's Choice, 5/5.
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Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.