Sam Francis, “Light on Fire”

Sam Francis (1923-1994) was one of the titans of Abstract Expressionism. No survey of the movement is complete without the inclusion of Francis’s distinctive, watery abstracts and expansive surfaces. Yet, Francis is also an outsider. A West Coast painter, with no ties to New York, Francis’s life is not integrated into the New York School scene and thus has been summarily described and is not well known by even enthusiasts of the movement. Now, Gabrielle Selz’s biography corrects that omission by painting a vivid picture of the difficult and unexpected life of this important Late Modernist painter. Selz’s father was Peter Selz, an important curator and administrator in the American post-war art scene, who was a supporter of Francis. Consequently, the author knew the artist and his work from a young age.

Outdoor life was an important part of Francis’s youth. Raised in the Depression in San Mateo (near San Francisco) California and Nova Scotia, Francis took a keen interest in nature. This would first stimulate his study of biology and later art. In 1936, young Francis was involved in a tragic accident. He had been handed a loaded gun by a student in the boys toilets. The students believed the pistol was defective or in some way disabled. When Francis pulled the trigger, none of the three students expected it to fire. Francis shot a fellow student, killing the boy. Although the family of the boy (who had found he pistol in the family home) absolved Francis of the killing, the death left a lasting mark on him, as did the death of his mother at the age of 44. 

Inspired by religion, mysticism, experiences of nature and romantic literature, Francis strove for to embrace the most powerful and ineffable. Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky captured the young man’s attention. “Like Sam [Francis], Ouspensky had lost a parent as a child and then embarked on a quest for secrets and hidden teachings that might lift the veil between the visible realm and the existence of something beyond.” Ouspensky’s ideas enlivened Francis’s imagination and liberated his conception of space and matter.   

Francis opted for biology at University of California, Berkeley and was intent on a career as a doctor. He had enrolled in the navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA declared war, he was called up. He switched to the air force and was transferred to various airbases across the country during his training period. Francis chose to specialise in reconnaissance flying – a dangerous branch. As it happened, he would never see military action.

Injured during training accidents in late 1943 – which, at this time, were common and frequently fatal in a rapidly expanding air corps – Francis’s spine became degeneratively impaired. Stricken with pain that doctors could not diagnose – and actually described as psychosomatic – Francis was in a grave condition by the time spinal tuberculosis was detected. He underwent surgery in a military hospital in Denver, followed by immobilisation in a body cast while fixed to a bed frame. Dosed on morphine, Francis drifted in and out of consciousness, hallucinating about strange visitors. In one vision, colours on the walls bled. Close to death and almost written off by medical staff, Francis received newly discovered antibiotics, which saved his life. As part of his recovery, he was given a set of watercolours, which he could paint with suspended over the paper.  

“With the gift of the watercolors, Sam started to paint and draw. He copied from art books, cartoons, postcards, magazines, movie posters […] Eventually he began painting remembered landscapes from his childhood. Soon he was working on his art sixteen hours a day. […] He hung his finished work around him, transforming his room into a studio and his nurses and aides into assistants.”

At the end of the two years of his illness (which left him immobilised for many months), Francis had a vision. “He was awake when a great orb of light like an enormous electric current appeared at the foot of his bed. It seemed to have come out of the wall, yet he could see the wall behind it. Slowly, the swirling, brilliant, transparent ball of energy moved toward him. Then the current was inside him, and it travelled through his entire body. One week later, Sam claimed, his doctor said to him he was almost cured. Whether or not he was cured so suddenly, Sam believed that the transparent orb he’d seen completely altered him. Trapped in the darkness of his cage, he had beheld a light. “It was a gift,” Sam said. From then on, he determined to move toward this apparition, toward the current.” This had a great impact on the imagery of Francis’s mature art and his visionary approach to painting.

In January 1947, Francis was discharged from hospital; the following month he married Vera, his childhood sweetheart. However, it turned out that they were sexually incompatible but they attempted to reach a harmonious modus vivendi. That attempt ended in 1949, in separation.

Francis re-enrolled in University of California, Berkeley, this time to study fine art on the GI Bill, earning his BA in 1949 and his MA in 1950. By this time, he was working in an abstract style, with soft biomorphic forms in a single colour tessellating the grounds. These evoked misty or watery forms placed in undetermined space, although painted in an unambiguous and painterly manner. Apparently, Francis rarely attended classes and – distanced by age and disability – was viewed as distant and aloof, even arrogant. Francis was closely studying the art of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Edward Corbett, which influenced his direction. At Berkeley, Francis studied with Corbett, who was working on paintings of Bay Area misty landscapes.

Francis departed for Paris in 1950. Paris had been the birth place of Modernism, but by 1950 Paris was much reduced in stature in the art world. American painters were seen as leaders of the avant-garde, not least for going beyond what the École de Paris had done. Francis received GI Bill stipend of $75 per month only if enrolled at a college. He signed up to Atelier Fernand Léger but did not see eye to eye with the master and it seems they hardly interacted. He visited the Les Trois Marroniers café, where Georges Duthuit and his wife Marguerite Matisse held court, and spent time with Jean Paul Riopelle. He drew his greatest inspiration from Monet’s panoramic canvases of waterlilies. This was a highly productive period, and one in which Francis’s originality was recognised by French and American observers. In Lovely Blueness (No. 1) (1955-7) was a massive canvas, which played with ultramarine, flecked with yellow, flanked by patches of orange, pink and red – reflecting the influence of Byzantine mosaics. Selz conveys the excitement of this period with brio.

In 1953, Francis married long-term girlfriend, Muriel Goodwin. It was another open marriage, which led to turbulent emotions and separations, some due to financial struggles. In 1954, Francis went to New York, where he was treated as a peculiarity – an American painter who had made his name and found his form in France. He was generally well received by the New York painters and a few dealers courted him. However, when his first solo exhibition in the USA opened (in February 1956) it was met by reasonable sales but biting reviews. Francis departed for France disillusioned. His second marriage foundered. “By now, there was a pattern in Sam’s relationships with women, especially during his outward-turning moments. He’d find a younger woman, usually an aspiring artist who was good, just not too competitive with him, and run off with her. He’d left the hospital with Vera, he’d left Vera and America with Muriel, he’d split with Muriel and gone off to Mexico with [Carol] Haerer. The pattern would continue throughout much of his life.”

In 1957 Francis went to undertake an artist residency in Tokyo, to paint a mural Sōgetsu school. In the following years, he would be feted as a great American and world painter, invited to paint and exhibit globally. Selz describes the sequence of affairs, children, exhibitions, prizes and landmark paintings. In 1959, Francis set up home in New York City with his third wife, who was expecting their child, only to uproot all three of them in 1960, due to his wanderlust and appetite for experiences.  

Selz puts the case of Francis as a counter-culture figure. She notes the shift around 1955-60, when abstract art went from being oppositional and liberated to being commodities for millionaires and geopolitical tools for Western governments. Non-conformist to the core, Francis prioritised freedom and expression above all else, so it is unsurprising that he sympathised with anarchistic and revolutionary aims of youthful protestors in the 1960s. He was troubled by the escalating prices of his art and spent compulsively. He experimented with performance art as a way of removing the price element of art production. He also collaborated in mixed media projects, which challenged expectations of fine art. One was a sky painting in coloured smoke released from a helicopter, executed above Tokyo in 1966.

In 1961 Francis experienced a recurrence of tuberculosis, which threatened his life and left him once again hospitalised, this time in Switzerland. As previously, he painted in watercolour from his hospital bed. The painted series of Blue Balls (1961-3) was a reference to the tubercular infection of Francis’s genitals, as well as a reference back to Pollock’s landmark Blue Poles (1952). Selz backs the idea that Francis’s Blue Balls were a bridging of introspective, existential Abstract Expressionism and cool, detached Pop Art. Feeling unmoored – he had separated from his third wife – Francis decided to settle back in California (this time Southern California, Santa Monica), while all the time maintaining studios in New York, Paris and Zurich.

In Santa Monica, Francis took up printmaking at Tamarind Workshop, Los Angeles, finding colour lithography congenial. He formed friendships with local artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and James Turrell. Francis was also critical in shaping the nascent Los Angeles art scene, which lagged far behind other major American cities. A large sailmaker’s workshop gave him enough space to paint huge canvases flat on the floor. (Canvases with edges as long as 215”/5.46 m.) At this time, Francis began his Edge or ma paintings; ma means space or gap in Japanese. The Edge paintings confine mark making to the edges of the canvases, with blank space at the centre. One of which was Berlin Red (1969-70), the world’s largest painting on canvas. Francis would spend time considering preparatory material and doing menial tasks to settle himself, before launching into extended periods of painting, walking over the surface, usually in his underwear alone. The work was so absorbing that he did not feel his back pain.

Such large projects demanded assistants. They also acted as packers and hangers of his huge canvases. One of them studied paint technology and developed paints using vivid pigments and of special viscosity and transparency. Selz is particularly good on the personal dynamics of Francis’s interactions with studio assistants. Francis was apparently generous, loyal, engaging and personable. He also had another side. “But Sam could also be capricious and manipulative. […] He was frequently fickle, giving one set of instructions to one assistant and contradictory instructions to another. He fostered divisions as a way to maintain control, and he expected the assistants who lived in the guesthouse to be available at any hour of the day or night. He was moody and arrogant.”

Wealth facilitated Francis’s access to indulgence. “Sam had many compulsions, especially women and food. By the 1980s, he was addicted to vitamins and healers. Ill health continued to plague him. He traveled with a suitcase packed with nutritional and mineral supplements. If there was a pseudoscientist in the vicinity – someone who practiced with crystals, magnets, beet juice, or hands-on magic touches; someone who drove up in a Rolls-Royce and charged exorbitant fees – Sam employed them.”

Francis’s painting was constantly evolving. It is entirely to his credit (albeit, compatible with his nature) that he never remained complacent. He developed a new system, of applying water with wetting agents in lattices, then applying acrylic paint so that it was bleed and spread within these wet areas. However, detached from the restrictions of limited materials, space and market for his art, Francis’s ego would expand to fill spaces his status afforded him. He created the biggest painting in the world, used the world’s largest printing press, had a canvas made for him that was a fifth of a mile long. Francis’s technique allowed giant areas to be covered, but this was not necessarily a wise or effective deployment of his creativity. Too much of his late work tended towards emptiness and even bombast.

In 1989, Francis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Delays caused by Francis and his unwillingness to undergo treatment that would leave him impotent, his condition declined. After conventional medication worked, Francis switched to alternative medicine. His cancer grew and metastasised. The account of Francis’s last months presents a chaotic circus of “up to thirty  caregivers from around the world thronged the house”. He died on 4 November 1994, aged 71. His estate was valued at over $79 million and became the subject of a multi-party legal struggle.

Francis’s status is muddied by huge overproduction and unwillingness to edit his output. Painting was his life and a compulsive activity; especially in his last years, Francis carried on painting regardless of quality. At his best, Francis is a great painter, but he was not often at his best. The catalogue raisonné of oil paintings tacitly acknowledged this problem, by issuing a partial printed catalogue and a full catalogue on an accompanying disc. A full printed catalogue raisonné of oil paintings would have diluted esteem and lowered values of his paintings. In fairness, it seems unwise to assess Francis’s painting as a whole because this diminishes his standing. Any artist wants to be remembered at his best.

Selz obviously admires Francis’s skill as an artist and his zest for life but is honest enough not to conceal the artist’s frequent selfishness (regarding relationships) and arrogance (regarding his artistic status). Light on Fire is a biographical portrait that is as rich and contradictory as its subject. Definitely recommended for fans of Francis, Abstract Expressionism and American Modernism.

Gabrielle Selz, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, University of California Press, October 2021, hardback, 392pp, mono/11 col. illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 520 31071 1

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art


The body laid bare: Art of Anatomy

Anatomical study, art and medicine are bound up with criminality. Not only were the bodies of criminals the few samples available to physicians for dissection in the centuries before 1800, teachers of anatomy relied on the activities of the Resurrection Men. These grave robbers, body thieves and murderers provided bodies for teaching hospitals and universities. Even as late at the mid-Sixteenth Century, anatomical dissection was a criminal activity, undertaken in secret by medical men and artists. Painter Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) even resorted to graverobbing to prepare a Deposition of Christ. Famed anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) attended a hanging and quartering in Padua to observe the body dissected while still alive. Even after the threats of legal sanction and excommunication were lifted, the air of disreputability lingered around the practice of dissecting the dead. There is something shockingly intimate about the exposure of the hidden intricacies of the human body, as J.G. Ballard recalled in his memoirs The Kindness of Women (1991).    

To mark a wide-ranging exhibition of anatomical art and art inspired by anatomical illustration at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, Los Angles (22 February-10 July), the catalogue Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy has been published. The exhibition gathers together notable examples from the beginning of modern anatomy science in the Renaissance up to art of recent years. The new art is not compelling or distinguished, so – aside from noting that anatomy still inspires artists today – we shall pass over that and look at the anatomy art of the pre-Modernist era.

Present-day divisions between science, art and philosophy arose precisely out of the increase in specialised knowledge that came about through the work of anatomists in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The explanations of what these scientists discovered required published descriptions with clear illustrations. What we find in these illustrations is a combination of precision and imaginative invention. Of these illustrations, those by Jan Steven van Calcar (c. 1515-1546) are most famous. His illustrations for Vesalius’s ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) – including views of a human skeleton seemingly contemplating a skull, a skeleton resting an elbow on a stave and a flayed man gesturing dramatically in a pastoral landscape – are widely celebrated. Today, these can be found on album sleeves, book covers and T-shirts. The book was the first printed anatomy book to fully integrate text and image.  

By placing anatomies in architectural and scenic surroundings in his illustrations, van Calcar gave his subjects liveliness and nobility. He also explicitly linked the physiological information presented with the ability of the artist to use this data in the creation of art that fused fact and imagination. As writers here note, these animated cadavers have the stoicism of martyrs in contemporaneous sacred paintings, with their eyes cast upward to heaven as their mortal forms are scourged. Écorchés (French: flayed cadavers) stand nonchalantly, their skins draped over an outstretched arm. Another practice was anatomia all’antica (Italian, “anatomy after the antique”). This consisted of creating anatomically-exposed versions of famous antique statues, such as the Borghese Gladiator, the Discobolus and others, showing the master of the ancients and endowing dissection with the authority of art. Such poses recreated sometimes exposed shortcomings of the ancient sculptors, as they failed to incorporate bunched muscles or taut tendons.

Illustrations by Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) presented flayed figures standing in groves with fragments of antique masonry at their sides. At the other end of the spectrum, some views filled empty space with assorted details, using the printing plate surface as efficiently (if inelegantly) as possible. 

These illustrations became as important for other artists as they did for students of medicine. As figures in paintings became more anatomical sound, so scientific illustrations became elaborate, with mises-en-scènes becoming pictures within which the dissected body acted as still-life or dramatic character. Rembrandt’s two anatomy-lesson paintings are scenes of professional men at work (as seen in similar paintings by him of jewellers, scholars and burghers) but they also differ little from the complex frontispieces found in anatomy textbooks. On occasion, physicians were competent enough as artists to draw the illustrations for their own texts. New illustration techniques had to be conceived of by anatomical artists in order to depict on a page the nature of a complex multi-layered three-dimensional organism. 

Some of the reproduced images are startling. One print by Cornelis Huyberts (1669/70-c. 1712) shows the skeletons of foetuses posed on a stand around an artful pile of pebbles and twigs. One has a feather fixed to its skull. Such macabre dioramas were – in real life – a staple of curiosity cabinets and would become features of travelling shows of oddities in following centuries, dying out only the last decades of the Twentieth Century. This irreverent (even jocular) attitude towards the dead (especially children) will leave some with modern sensibilities uneasy. Other images are so peculiar it is hard to know what to make of them. Only the field of comparative anatomy could give rise to an illustration entitled The penis and testicles of a young boy, the skin from the hand of a young boy, a bundle of pubic hair, and three chicken eggs (1703). (Salvador Dalí would have relished such a title.) In an illustration from William Hunter’s giant anatomy book, a curled late-term foetus is exposed in the womb of his dead mother – a poignantly pitiful image.

Some obscurities were deliberate. In some books, genitals were not reproduced. Descriptions of female genitals were sometimes given in Latin, excluding the uneducated. In one anatomy book, ovine reproductive organs substituted human ones, which were considered too indecent. 

This book includes essays from top-level specialists on topics such as illustration of anatomy, anatomy books, antiquity and others. The catalogue section has individual works – mainly illustrative prints that have detailed discussion facing full-page images. The development of anatomical art is fleshed out – if you’ll pardon the pun – in these commentary texts that explain the purpose and significance of these selected art works. Studying this field, we can see the changing technology of reprographics. In the Sixteenth Century illustrations were made by carving designs from wooden blocks, soon after can engravings and etchings in copper sheets. Readers will be impressed at the level of detail and care in these prints, with the dense curvilinear cross-hatching describing the muscles, tendons and bones of the body. Mezzotint (where shade is indicated through stippling of printing plates) allowed colour printing, something that was later achieved much more easily through lithographic printing. Such skills have almost disappeared in art. Later developments include the inclusion of flaps and fold-outs.

This catalogue is a welcome and engrossing testimony to the nearly lost art of both anatomy illustration. The book contains numerous illustrations of anatomical illustration, casts, scenes of academy studios, three-dimensional coloured models with moveable parts and some early photographs. The bibliography, footnotes and index will assist researchers.

Monique Kornell, with Thisbe Gensler, Naoko Takahatake, Erin Travers, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy, Getty Research Institute, 1 March 2022, 248 pages, 8 x 11 inches, 163 col. illus., hardcover, $50, ISBN 978-1-60606-769-7  

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Helen Frankenthaler’s Woodcuts

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Freefall, 1993. Twelve color woodcut from 1 plate of 21 Philippine
Ribbon mahogany plywood blocks on hand-dyed paper in 15 colors, 199.4 x 153.7 cm ©
2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
Mount Kisco, NY]

The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 11 September 2021-18 April 2022) displays in the UK for the first time the woodcuts of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), on the tenth anniversary of her death.

During the 1950s-70s there was a boom in American printmaking, especially in the fields of lithography, screenprinting and etching. The development of new techniques and the rise of styles that were well matched to printmaking (Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, geometric abstraction) all contributed to a golden age of Late Modernist printmaking. Woodcuts – aside from the related wood engravings, which also had a lesser revival – did not receive much attention but for a painter who always responded strongly to the surface qualities of her supports, Frankenthaler realised the potential of woodcuts. In the use of plates which displayed grain, Frankenthaler saw an equivalence between the grain of canvas (usually cotton duck) and the more irregular and organic grain of the wood block. Additionally, she was used to staining canvases irregularly and these wash, tide or drying edges resemble the swaying swoops of woodgrain. Nature had ready prepared her supports for her.

Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions, New York introduced Frankenthaler to the experience of making woodcut prints in 1973. She would go on to make 29 editioned woodcut prints. Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, New York proved to be the perfect collaborator for Frankenthaler, expanding the scope and ambition of Frankenthaler as a printmaker. The large size of Freefall (1993) (199 x 153 cm) and its delicately graduated inking providing an intense ultramarine void at its centre, would have been beyond the ability of less experienced printmakers. The graduated colour comes from Japanese woodblock prints, the abrasions to the plate partly come from Surrealism and pre-war abstract art. The use of jigsaw plates for different colours, each revealing the grain of the wood (it would been possible to use cross-cut wood, which would not have displayed grain) inevitably evokes the radical woodcuts of Edvard Munch. However, Munch printed his proofs in one pull with the separately inked blocks assembled, whereas Frankenthaler had her colours separately applied, each carefully registered to make sure the blocks were in position. Munch was not perturbed by the inevitably outlines with no ink that bounded each block. For Frankenthaler, the joints had to be crisp or deliberately overlapping to generate composite colours. Munch’s aesthetic is primal and figurative; Frankenthaler’s is reflective and abstract. Munch reused blocks until they wore out, becoming distressed. (Against standard practice, Munch used to weather his paintings by placing them outside to remove their newness by introducing fading, cracking, staining.)

The exhibition includes finished impressions and some test proofs, along with a couple of paintings. The prints vary in effectiveness. The earliest print is East and Beyond (1973), an 8-colour print which beautifully combined the large organic swatches of delicate colour with slivers and nodes of more intense hues. They work well on the Nepalese handmade paper, with its organic fragments complimenting the grain of the wood. Machine-made paper, especially stark white, often has a deadening or sterilising effect on art. The gentle natural tinting of the paper allows the print to rest easily, whereas a harsh white would fix the edges more, acting as a sharp (almost reproving) demarcation. Similarly, inside the prints, lightly inked plates with fine grain act like veils or muslin, with connotations of delicacy. The weakness of wood – the cracks and splintering – add a human element of flaws and of individual character in a way that the regularity of cotton duck and dilute acrylic paint do not. A certain obduracy obtains and Frankenthaler’s art benefits thereby. Had Frankenthaler ever tackled stone carving, she would have faced such flaws and strengths and had to adapt herself to these qualities. Frankenthaler does seem at her best when she has to negotiate or struggle, which is why her woodcuts are even more rewarding than her paintings.  

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Snow Pines, 2004. Thirty-four color Ukiyo-e style woodcut from 16
blocks on Torinoko paper and mounted onto Fabriano Classico paper, 95.3 x 66 cm © 2021
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Pace Editions, Inc., NY]

Essence Mulberry (1977) shows a sequence of trial proofs where artist experimented with colour combinations. The edition itself incorporated blank space at the bottom of the elongated vertical-format sheet. Tales of Genji I and II (1998) are less successful. The introduction of graphic lines is a mistake as they are too assertive and intrusive. III is very much more effective, lacking that graphic intervention and relying much more on modulation of intense colour. IV and V are compromises between the two compositions, prettier, more detached in character. Radius (1993) feels both inconsequential and too self-consciously made, redolent of performance. The Grove (1991) and The Clearing (1991) are rougher, closer to Munch, not aiming to please or delight or dazzle. Freefall (1993) is a showstopper, a grand spectacle both visually and technically impressive.

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000. One-hundred-two color woodcut from 46
blocks of birch, maple, lauan, and fir on 1 sheet of light sienna (center sheet) and 2 sheets of
sienna (left and right sheet) TGL handmade paper, triptych 106 x 201.9 cm, each sheet 106 x
67.3 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler
Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY]

Madame Butterfly (2000) required 46 blocks, producing 102 colours in an extended printing process that required one year. It straddles Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and the Aesthetic Movement. Whistler’s japonaiserie and limpid smoky evocations of water and sky are not too far distant from Frankenthaler’s expansive print, composed of three sheets assembled. It has a landscape format and (like many of her woodcuts) evokes the landscape. Japanese Maple (2005) conjures a landscape in its dark central form lying horizontal in a horizontally oriented sheet, with the suggestion of a reflection of mountains on placid water. Madame Butterfly is shown in a room with the original painting on plywood that inspired that painting and a working proof, adjusted by the artist. The final print is beautiful and a fitting end to the exhibition. Personally, I feel Geisha (2003) (23 colours from 15 blocks) surpasses it by a touch, due to its compactness and the vivid conjunction of yellow and crimson. It has a firmness not found in the paintings. The quasi-knotholes act as motifs in disguise, while the jagged parapets do Clyfford Still-style work, imparting a rugged grandiosity to the print. This was made with Yasuyuki Shibata at Pace Editions, who had participated in the creation of Madame Butterfly at Tyler’s workshop. It would be the print I would most like to live with.    

The collaborative process and the lengthy indirect means by which the proofs came into being – and came into being piecemeal in a highly artificial manner – was quite different to Frankenthaler’s painting. Most Colour-Field and Abstract Expressionist painting is direct, with material being added or covered over in a sequential, direct and spontaneous manner. It is alla prima and it is observable as it is made. Print-making is highly organised, indirect, slow, technical, sometimes working through composite means which cannot intuitively understood during the making process. Printmaking is also conceptual, because it requires artist, master printmaker and technicians to envisage something that does not exist and cannot be made directly. Shapes are inverted, colour and tonal values reversed, stencils are used for their negative space not positive space and so forth. It requires thinking ahead and deducing from that projection the steps that will be required. The fact that Frankenthaler managed these challenges shows her versatility and her ability to work in collaboration with technicians, a system that required accepting as well as giving advice and responding to technical difficulties. Few Abstract Expressionists and Colour-Field painters made good prints, probably due to these issues.    

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Cedar Hill, 1983. Ten color woodcut from 13 blocks, 5 mahogany and 8
linden, on light pink Mingei Momo handmade paper, 51.4 x 62.9 cm © 2021 Helen
Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA]

In a different room, Frankenthaler’s acrylic painting Feather (1979) is paired with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c. 1916-7), lent from Musée Marmottan, Paris. The Frankenthaler canvas does seem a legitimate successor (or offspring) of the Impressionist expanse of colour holding painting motifs. It is an intelligent comparison, out of which Frankenthaler emerges unscathed. Both paintings benefit from the encounter.    

Sometimes in Frankenthaler’s paintings there is problematic disjuncture of the stained surface and the impasto paint. These often conflict visually and physically. It is as if one is trying to understand a poem written in two different languages, both of which the audience speaks but one tongue is more comfortable for each member. One comprehends both the physically distant ethereal staining and physically assertive tangible impasto, but seeing them together forces the viewer to switch between these modes in a way that can be difficult or require conscious effort. This is not the case with art by Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock, where areas of stain and impasto are broken up into pattern, thus dissolving the boundary between ground and motif, staining and impasto. The regularity of the fat paint (vis a vis the lean paint) forms a net, which acts a totalising device, making any single impasto mark uninformative and not singly significant. With Frankenthaler (and Feather is a good example of this), motifs or marks over the ground retain significance. They are large enough and small enough to act as devices and are given space to gain attention; they are not part of a surface covering repetition. This is probably the single greatest obstacle to the acceptance and enjoyment of Frankenthaler’s painting, even though individual viewers might not understand why they do not feel as at home with a Frankenthaler compared to a Lee Krasner Little Image painting or a painting by Pollock or Tobey (or Sam Francis, in his early classic style).

In the woodcut prints, this inherent tension between ground and motif in Frankenthaler’s painting is resolved. The applied ground and motif – and intermediary areas of expansive motifs or shapes – are all on the surface in the prints. Ground and motif have the same optical qualities and density and they lie flatly on surface of the paper. Absorption of applied pigment into the support does not occur, so there is no ambiguity between applied pigment and pre-existing support. In the prints, there is no recession, with pigment mingling with the material of the canvas (or, in this case, paper). Hence, there is no division between the visual qualities of stain and impasto, ground and motif and therefore no need for viewers to struggle assimilating different pictorial and optical languages. This sense of completeness, of containment and parity between elements in a Frankenthaler woodcut makes them easier viewing than her paintings; for some, this make the woodcuts better art than her paintings.

The exhibition is carefully designed, lit and set out, the catalogue is informative and the video presentation is to the point and not intrusive visually or aurally. Best of all, the art is often beautiful and sometimes genuinely great – comparable to the best works in the genre by artists of different eras, traditions and countries. This exhibition is open until April next year and is highly recommended.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts

In the development of colour printing, one of the two centres was German-speaking central Europe. (For a review of prints from the other centre – Northern Italy, especially Venice – click here.) The chiaroscuro woodcut involved the cutting of multiple plates, usually two or three, in blocks of wood and printing each in colour sequentially on a single sheet of paper, producing an image with areas of different colour, some produced by overprinting of inked fields. The blocks are cut so that the highlight areas were removed, the remaining area being printed as shade (called “tone”); usually a block with a line design was printed over the top, often in black (called “key”, “line” or “outline”). This produced prints that were not full colour replicated the effect of wash drawings or drawings on tinted paper.

Woodcut prints from multiple plates was not the only method of printing in colour. Discounting hand-coloured line prints, colour printing was done with stencils and stamping and printing in colours on tinted paper. Colour printing was used for text in devotional works, book title pages, music scores, calendars, charts, diagrams, maps and all manner of material that was not strictly pictorial.

The book is arranged as a catalogue of British Museum’s holdings of German chiaroscuro and colour woodcuts. Almost all of the prints are relief (rather than intaglio). It covers 150 years of printmaking, ending around 1600, with a coda of a revival of colour printing from the C17th and C18th. The advance of this survey is that it includes book illustrations as well as single-sheet prints. Reproduced here are pages with texts printed in two colours, a prime use of two-colour printing. “Calendars, printer’s devices, music, diagrams, even passages of text with extensive ‘rubrication’ or red text demonstrate that many if not most printers were skilled colour printers, even if their projects did not involve images printed from multiple colours. […] the vast majority of colour prints were produced for books or ephemera, including broadsides and pamphlets that were intended to be used and then discarded.”

Printer Erhard Ratdolt (1442-1528) is generally credited with inventing colour printing from blocks in the 1470s. By 1482, Ratdolt was making multiple-block colour prints in scientific treatises. Whether he actually invented it, Ratdolt’s are the earliest datable examples so far identified. Considering how delicate prints are and how few survive, it is unlikely accomplished earlier dated prints will be discovered. Ratdolt was from Augsburg. He travelled to work as a printer in Venice, where he encountered the most advanced techniques of the day. He brought this knowledge back to Bavaria and made Augsburg (frequently the site of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor) the epicentre of the German printmaking renaissance.

By 1507-8, Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472-1553) and Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) were making chiaroscuro prints. They experimented by printing in precious metals. Cranach’s St George was printed in black line and gold highlight on indigo-dyed paper. His Venus and Cupid (1509) is more Italianate than his most typical paintings.

Burgkmair’s Lovers Surprised by Death (1510) shows skeletal death killing a soldier, while his lower attempts to flee. Death has her robe clamped in his jaws. The setting is Venice and perhaps the death that has found them is the plague, a common scourge of Venice.  

Savage notes that the first white-line woodcut was not made by Urs Graf (c. 1485-1529) in 1521, but was at least current by the publication of Pelbartus of Temesvár’s Pomerium (1502). The title vignette shows a monk reading at a lectern in a garden, with four mythological animals in roundels at each corner of that image. White ink was not a viable medium, hence the use line-cut relief blocks with black ink. Two of Graf’s prints of standard-bearers of the Swiss Confederacy are reproduced here. A stunning print in red tone and black line on an off-white paper of Adams and Eve (after Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) has glinting line highlights cut into the tone block, which gives the figures and tree of knowledge a flickering reflective quality. It is like looking at a statue group carved in polished red stone. 

After Sebald Beham, The Fall of Man, c.1550–1600, two-block colour woodcut
(red, black), 350 × 253 mm. British Museum, 1845,0809.1734

Hans Baldung “Grien” (1484/5-1545) and Hans Wechtlin (1480/5-after 1526) worked in another HRE court in Strasbourg. Baldung’s Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (1510) is a famous early colour print and is reproduced in multiple colours. Wechtlin’s Crucifixion (two versions, c. 1510 and 1511 or later) is as sombre and pictorially deep as a painting. Wechtlin designed elaborate ornamental architectural frames for the tableaux. In Skull in Frame (c. 1510-3), the skull fills its frame, the jaw protruding towards the viewer. The tone block defines the roundness of the skull through shading through areas and hatching.

A selection of prints from the later C16th demonstrate the multifarious uses of colour printing, mainly from books. Although the designs are sometimes workmanlike, the skill of the printers is of a high standard. The intarsia panels are colour woodcuts printed on paper which were pasted on to furniture, wall panels and doors. Few of these survive, either unused or (even rarer) on the surface to which they were applied. Erasmus Loy’s were architectural scenes, with strong perspective, designed to imitate relief carvings, usually the preserve of the well-off. 

Erasmus Loy, View of an Arcade, c.1557–70, two-block colour
woodcut (ochre, red-brown) with stamp of privilege, 280 × 210
(sheet). British Museum, presented by William Mitchell,
1895,0122.129

A beautifully accomplished chiaroscuro print of the Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is actually a C 17th Dutch addition of a tone block to the original line block produced by Dürer. Savage suggests that the development of this addition was to compensate for the worn condition of the much-printed block. The woodcut revival of the 1600s to 1800s was mostly in the form of recreations, tone blocks added to old line blocks and variants of works by esteemed masters, such as Beham and Dürer.

The items are organised in chronological order and technical data is provided, though there is little by way of information on papers or ink composition, which is too specialist for such a volume. A bibliography and index are included. There are microscopic photographs, showing the order in which blocks were inked and printed. No matrices (blocks) are illustrated. Alternate states and single-block impressions are reproduced when available.

This is a valuable overview of early printing, striking a balance between covering a multitude of examples and providing technical explanations. It shows thorough knowledge of the latest research into the field and perfectly complements Naoko Takahatake’s The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (Prestel, 2018), which covers the other half of the story of early colour printing. Recommended for collectors, printmakers and those studying the German Renaissance.   

Elizabeth Savage, Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., £50, ISBN 978 1 911 300755

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Matisse: The Books

[Image: Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947. Published by Tériade, Paris. Unbound book with colour stencils on Arches paper and lithographed text, 42.5 x 33 x 3.5 cm (16 3/4 x 13 x 1 1/2 in.) Photo Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art Purchased with the John D. McIlhenny Fund, 1948 Photos © Philadelphia Museum of Art Artwork © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2020]

Livres d’artiste should (theoretically) be the most available of art, being more common than artist’s prints and cheaper than a drawing or painting, at the time of the book’s publication. Paradoxically, artists’ books are actually art works that are the least accessible and most difficult to understand. The high price of the books, their rarity and difficulty of access make artists’ books some of the least familiar of art works. Individual drawing, prints and paintings are exhibited and reproduced frequently; artists’ books are displayed partially, usually without accompanying text. It is rarely possible to exhibit a whole book and it is almost impossible to handle an expensive artists’ book. This is especially true for the books of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). With some Matisse volumes selling for over $500,000, there is virtually no chance for anyone other than a rich collector or a privileged researcher to handle such books.

In Matisse: The Books, Louise Rogers Lalaurie outlines the contents of each Matisse’s eight artist books, designed and published over a period of 18 years. The following books are described, analysed and reproduced (in part): Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies, 1930/1932; Dessins, Thèmes et Variations, 1942/1943; Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours, 1942/1948; Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes, 1943/1950; Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, 1943/1944; Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, 1947; Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises, 1946; and Jazz, 1947.

The books were published by gallerists and art publishers, such as Albert Skira, Martin Fabiani and Tériade, always designed to be sumptuous productions offered to art collectors and bibliophiles. Matisse was very closely involved in the production of the books, offering guidance and criticism to master printer Roger Lacourière (for Jazz, Edmond Vairel, Draeger Frères and Angèle Lamotte) and publishers. The delays between Matisse finalising the designs and art and the publication dates were due to the exacting technical demands of working with high-specification printing, sourcing suitable materials and the difficulties of production during wartime. (Only two of his books was printed during the Occupation of France.) In each chapter, Rogers Lalaurie describes the book, discusses the contents and selection of text, explains the personal significance of the text to Matisse and leads us through the production process. The covers and selections of pages of each book are illustrated.

Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies (created 1930, published 1932)was illustrated with flowing arabesque lines in etching (black ink). It is redolent of the Nice period of languid nudes and women in elegant clothing. Matisse’s recent Tahitian journey and the design for the Barnes mural La Danse appear in two designs. His Baudelaire is drawn close up – forceful and intense; Poe is withdrawn, melancholic. The text is reproduced in part, allowing us to appreciate the care put into the whole production. “Unlike Picasso, Matisse was determined to avoid any hint of a frame, even using copper plates larger than the page size in the final book, so that no indented plate mark would be left on the paper during printing.” The success of the book aesthetically must have encouraged artist and publishers to return to the field.

Regarding Poésies, an error of authorial approach is evident. Once again, I caution authors against imposing their current sensibility on speech of the past. Translating Matisse’s word nègre as “a Black man” (rather than the historically accurate “negro”) makes the artist writing in the 1940s sound like a progressive prig; misrepresenting the speaker does both the speaker and readers a disservice. If the word was good enough for Ralph Ellison (a black author, writing in the 1940s and 1950s), it is good enough for a translation of Matisse’s contemporaneous comments. Authors and publishers, trust readers to have the worldly sense not to view historical subjects as racist on the basis of the language of their times.   

Dessins, Thèmes et Variations (created 1942, published 1943) is a selection of linocut, lithograph and photo-lithographic reproductions from Matisse’s art and is something of an exception in the artist books in that consists of material that was essentially pre-existing re-made for the purposes of inclusion in the book. It was made as defiance against the Nazi Occupation of France and the Vichy regime, containing Modernist art, decadent themes and a text by Louis Aragon, prominent Communist intellectual. Themes are the reclining woman (Lydia Delectorskaya, his assistant), portraits and still-lifes; the drawings in charcoal, pencil and ink-line, were photographed and reproduced through lithography. This is more of a portfolio summarising Matisse’s artistic position in 1942 than it is a genuine livre d’artiste, especially considering the pre-existence of illustrations as standalone works. The definition of an original artist’s print is that it should come into existence through the making of the print and not be a reproduction or transcription of an existing art work.    

[Image: Henri Matisse, Florilège des Amours de Ronsard by Pierre de Ronsard, 1948. Published by Albert Skira, Paris. Unbound book with lithographs in sanguine on Arches wove paper; loose in wrappers, lithograph by Matisse on the cover with the title in black; chemise boards covered in white paper, spine covered in purple suede with the author’s name in purple on the spine; slipcase covered with white paper and decorated with a leaf motif (in blue) 38.5 × 29.3 × 4.4 cm (15 1/4 x 11 5/8 x 1 3/4 in.) Photo Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Gift of the Reva and David Logan Foundation © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Artwork © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2020 ]

Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours (created 1942, published 1948) was published with 126 lithographs, in an edition of 360 copies. The drawings are elegant and pleasing and some – especially p. 187, “je veux…”, a woman’s profile woman as the closing image – are gracefully beautiful. Flowers and leaves dance around the typed text. The elegance of the text and images do not undercut the seriousness of author and artist.

[Image: Henri Matisse, Florilège des Amours de Ronsard by Pierre de Ronsard, 1948. Published by Albert Skira, Paris. Unbound book with lithographs in sanguine on Arches wove paper; loose in wrappers, lithograph by Matisse on the cover with the title in black; chemise boards covered in white paper, spine covered in purple suede with the author’s name in purple on the spine; slipcase covered with white paper and decorated with a leaf motif (in blue) 38.5 × 29.3 × 4.4 cm (15 1/4 x 11 5/8 x 1 3/4 in.) Photo Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Gift of the Reva and David Logan Foundation © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Artwork © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2020]

Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes (created 1943, published 1950) marks a departure. Matisse handwrote the texts of Charles d’Orléans’s poems, which he had selected. The poems were printed on unbound folded sheets with drawings in lithography, some with drawn cartouches around texts. The designs include heraldic fleurs-de-lys. The print format on single sheets suits poems of 12 to 17 lines. The book was made in 1943 but not printed until 1950, using multi-colour lithography. Matisse apparently identified with Charles, who had been given up for dead upon a battlefield before being recovered from the bodies. Matisse had a brush with death in 1941 when he survived an operation for cancer. Charles subjects of exile and ostracization also struck a chord for the artist, who had been condemned by Nazi occupiers, Vichy collaborators and French traditionalists.   

[Image: Henri Matisse, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos (Les Crétois) by Henry de Montherlant, 1944. Published by Fabiani, Paris. Unbound book with linoleum cuts on cream wove paper33.7 x 25.6 x 4 cm (13 3/8 x 10 1/8 x 1 5/8 in.) Photo Credit: Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of Molly and Walter Bareiss. All photos © Toledo Museum of ArtArtwork © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2020]

Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, (created 1943, published 1944) was a play and a prefatory text by the author. The linocuts present the simplicity of Matisse’s designs within blocks of black. The illustrations were in black, as were the bandeaux; the lettrines (initial capitals) were in scarlet. The author – a patriot and war-hero of the Great War – came to Matisse’s studio to sit for portraits. It was the only time Matisse engaged with an existing text by a living author for the production of a livre d’artiste.

Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, (created 1944-6, printed 1947) is the only book by Matisse that misses the mark. It is a failure of tone, as Alfred H. Barr noted. Matisse lacks the intensity, the power and the ability to produce material that is scabrous, sordid, dirty and ugly. The degradation of the Spleen section is completely outside Matisse’s range. Matisse selected only less rebarbative and pungent poems, providing each with a portrait (29 female, four male) and some abstract tailpieces. By selecting in order to match his outlook and capacity as an illustrator, Matisse effectively seems to misrepresent Baudelaire’s scope and intentions for Les Fleurs du Mal, deliberately avoiding the more difficult verse.

Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises (created 1945, published 1946) is a set of letters ascribed to a Portuguese nun, written to her distant lover, a French diplomat. These passionate letters have been considered to be an epistolatory novel, so well do they present a narrative of desire, loss and grief. Matisse’s lithographs (printed in dark purple) are portraits of the nun (a 14-year-old local girl modelled) and designs of leaves and fruits work effectively. The natural forms add drama and punctuate the gradual changes in emotional register of the portraits.  

[Image: Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947. Published by Tériade, Paris. Unbound book with colour stencils on Arches paper and lithographed text, 42.5 x 33 x 3.5 cm (16 3/4 x 13 x 1 1/2 in.) Photo Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art Purchased with the John D. McIlhenny Fund, 1948 Photos © Philadelphia Museum of Art Artwork © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2020]

Jazz (created 1943-6, published 1947) is unique among Matisse’s livres d’artiste in that is composed entirely of his words and images. Matisse’s handwritten text outlines his outlook, technique and aesthetics. The striking 20 colour planar prints – made by the pochoir (stencil) method – mirrored Matisse’s advances with the cut-out method, which consisted of colouring sheets of paper or card with gouache and cutting them with scissors, “drawing with scissors”, as Matisse put it. The motifs broadly relate to dance, music and performance (circus, trapeze acrobat, knife-thrower, sword-swallower, cowboy, swimmer, lion) but include natural forms of leaves, ripples, explosions and those that seem to be of sculpted women. The edition was 250 bound copies and 100 loose copies, the latter which were ideal for framed wall display. Matisse was initially disappointed by the print quality of the illustrations but eventually was reconciled to the book once he heard of its positive reception. Jazz remains the most famous and distinctive of Matisse’s books and its illustrations have become famous, commonly reproduced in books and as posters. Fittingly, it was his final book.

Full-page illustrations (including page edges), double-page spreads and cover images give readers a sense of handling and reading the books. The text is informative and explains the significance of the texts. The design and production quality of Matisse: The Books is high, with the best examples of the artist’s books being used to furnish illustrations. This book is highly recommended for fans of Matisse and livres d’artiste. For mere mortals, other than getting access to facsimile editions (themselves not cheap) Matisse: The Books is the closest we can come to handling Matisse’s books.

It would be a great service to enthusiasts of classic Modernism and artists’ books if Thames & Hudson were to publish Picasso: The Books, probably as a multi-volume work.

Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Matisse: The Books, Thames & Hudson, 2020, cloth hardback, 320pp, 237 illus., £65, ISBN 9780500021682

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Piranesi Unbound

In Piranesi Unbound Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor reframe discussion of Piranesi not as solely or principally as a printmaker/artist but “as a writer, illustrator, printer, and publisher of books”. They posit that the product was ultimately the book rather than individual prints or – in our age of catalogues raisonnés and universal access to a lifetime’s oeuvre – a body of prints, and that consequently it was the individual books that provided Piranesi’s a metric of his own success. Our consumption of Piranesi’s art has distorted our appreciation of it and left us ill-equipped to understand how Piranesi saw his work.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) arrived from Venice aged 20, with an ambition to become an architect. His skill for as an architectural draughtsman led to him recording the ruins of Rome in his painterly, exaggerated picturesque style in drawings and etchings. His books of etchings – mainly the Views of Rome and Imaginary Prisons – presented architectural views and fragments of antiquity, which came from Piranesi’s efforts as an archaeologist-antiquarian.

Piranesi produced prints for authors but soon moved to producing prints of his own subjects, both individually and bound as books. He collaborated with scholars on texts for his books, later writing alone. The texts assisted in selling bound collections of prints by adding intellectual coherence to views of disparate buildings and antiquities. The authors outline Piranesi’s career and method of operation. His drawing on the spot before motifs was complemented by invented and observed figures. Piranesi etchings often have diminutive figures to demonstrate the size of buildings; they also exhort viewers to behold the wonders of the ancients. Numerous illustrations show us sketches where the artist refines ideas and improvises.

The authors analyse Piranesi as a book producer. A chapter covers the way Piranesi used off-prints, faulty sheets and test proofs as waste paper on which he would sketch. (Over 60 sketches on printed sheets are extant.) It is significant that Piranesi had to send sheets to a book printer in order to have text printed. Although specialist engravers could cut letters on to figural plates, for whole pages of text, moveable type was required, which was under the purview of a text printer. “No matter how successful he became, Piranesi never owned a letterpress. Printing with movable type set in trays and printing from copperplates were two distinct specialities in eighteenth-century Rome, requiring different presses and teams of skilled laborers.” Type printing was relief matrix and copperplate was intaglio (recessed) matrix.

The printed sheets used for sketches are analysed, with sources identified. (Not all the sources are Piranesi’s books.) The artist designed his own letterforms and etched decorative vignettes of initial capital letters. The authors note that cataloguers have paid inconsistent attention to these vignettes, the plates for which have been lost. “Reference works on Piranesi’s prints typically divorce images from their texts, summarizing his books as lists of illustrations, and organizational problems abound within them.”

Copies of Piranesi’s books were bound once they were sold, with presumably sample books held by Piranesi’s publisher-bookseller. Many collectors had books bound to their own specifications, sometimes with a family escutcheon. There is discussion of the various patrons who supported Piranesi. Many were British gentlemen on the Grand Tour. Researchers will welcome the list of dedicatees of extant (and some lost) copies of Lettere di giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont (1757), which forms a summary of Piranesi’s patrons. “From the individual copies emerges a sweeping panorama of the artist’s professional world. Patrons and clients, printers and artists, nobles and clergy: all of them appear within the small frame of Piranesi’s dedicatory print.” Thumbnail biographies are accompanied by portraits. Fittingly, Piranesi Unbound is profusely illustrated and well designed.

The author’s note the way Piranesi reflected objects of antiquity and cast letters (from Roman inset inscriptions and contemporary cast type) in his prints, playing with illusionism. This is also seen in Piranesi’s texts illustrated as carved inscriptions on ruined stonework. On the title page of Lapides Capitolini sive Fasti Consulares Triumphalesque Romanorum (1762) has the form of a carved tablet with seals and coins placed on it. “When Piranesi etched or engraved a coin, he almost always showed it life-sized, or near life-sized, reveling in the verisimilitude of having an impressed object appear as if set down on the paper.” Piranesi was forever etching real and invented inscriptions on depictions of objects, demonstrating his playful creativity and visual wit.     

Hampering appreciated of Piranesi as book maker is the fact that many books have been split up and pages either separated for display or dispersed. Piranesi himself sold individual sheets to buyers who did not want or could not afford entire books. The chapter on the binding of Piranesi’s books includes photographs of the sumptuous bindings: leather with gilded figures and borders. There is a photograph of a copy that has had most of its pages cut out. These are aptly called “carcasses”. A chapter deals with the fate of prints, books and plates following the artist’s death. It seems Piranesi’s books were acquired by antiquarians, historians and numismatical experts, as well as by artists and architects.

There is a point here that applies to all art. We are becoming accustomed to the dematerialised digitised art work. Even if we are consuming art on the printed page, the image has been through digitisation and tweaking. Sizes have been adjusted to suit the page, tones altered to be optimised through a printing press, margins have been trimmed and straightened. Viewing art on a computer screen may allow greater flexibility in viewing and increased resolution, but it further translates a physical item into an arrangement of pixels. Even those of us who have seen or handled original prints, there is a certain relief about the printed illustration or computer file. We do not have to take care handling a printed sheet; we do not have to make an appointment and travel to a library to study an image; we can flip instantly between pictures and access unique works we could never see in person. There is a certain eager resignation to accept that art-as-object can be viably supplanted by art-as-image and there are advantages that cannot be gainsaid in the advances in printing and internet image access.

Piranesi Unbound is a thoroughly researched and stimulating discursive study of Piranesi as a creator and seller of books. This will be a valuable book for students of Piranesi, book arts and patronage in Eighteenth-Century Rome.  

Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor, Piranesi Unbound, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., $65/£54, ISBN 978 0 691 20610 3

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] P. 4

[ii] P. 15

[iii] P. 72

[iv] P. 125

[v] P. 110

Signac and the Independents

The exhibition Signac and the Indépendants (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) gives a cross-section of French art in the 1880-1940 period. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. This exhibition of the collection of Gilles Genty was organised around the subject of the Indépendants exhibition. The collection of Gilles Genty is a selection of avant-garde French and Belgian art from the 1880s to World War II. The collection follows the central line of avant-garde art that is preferred by art historians: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism (Divisionism/Pointillism), Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935) founded the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 as means of avant-garde artists exhibiting outside of the academy. From 1908 to 1934 Signac was president of the group. It drew its inspiration from the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists (commenced 1874) and shared a number of artists with those displays. The annual exhibitions became the focal point for controversy regarding new art. Over the years it featured art by the Symbolists, Nabis, Fauves, Expressionists, Salon Cubists, Orphists, Dadaists and the École de Paris. Matisse made his name for his Fauvist paintings exhibited with the group.

Signac was a Divisionist or Pointillist, a close associate of Seurat and the leading proponent of the style following Seurat’s early death in 1891. Signac was wedded to Pointillism from 1884 until the end of his life. There are plausible suggestions that Signac’s political anarchism influenced his commitment to Pointillism, with its conception of individual marks playing their parts in a harmonious whole. (Pointillists sometimes believed in the inclusion of all parts of a spectrum in a painting.) Pissarro’s anarchism contributed in his adoption of “scientific” Pointillism as a companion to the “scientific” social solution of anarchism as a cure for social ills. Pissarro was doyen of artist-anarchists and the Neo-Impressionists.

As the Salon accepted and absorbed the avant-garde following a lag, so artists transferred their loyalty from the Indépendants to the more lucrative and highly attended. Both the Indépendants and the Impressionists resented artists defecting. (Manet was not eligible for the Impressionist exhibitions because he continued to exhibit at the Salon.) Signac commented, “For twenty years now, a few comrades and I have been running the Salon des Indépendants, where every artist has been free to exhibit what he liked and how he liked. Now, few of them stay with us! They prefer to be rejected or to reject others from exhibitions based on the detestable principle of Authority. (Société des Artistes Français, Société Nationale, Salon d’Automne). Too bad for the spineless!”

Among the art included are pictures by Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Berthe Morisot, with a masterpiece by the former. The Sparrow (c. 1865-70) is a fine pastel, delicately made and sympathetically observed. It shows a bust in profile of the artist’s sister as a Roman woman holding a sparrow. It dates from her apprenticeship years, when she studied under Charles Chaplin, an academic painter.

Maximilien Luce was a social realist and anarchist who portrayed the industrial workers of Wallonia and scenes of steelworks and collieries on the Sambre river at Charleroi. (Constant Meunier – not part of this collection – took similar topics for his sculpture and paintings.) Luce became president of the Indépendants on Signac’s retirement. Luce’s oval-format views of Paris are pretty and would have considerable appeal if they were better known.

The Belgians who exhibited at the Indépendants included Spilliaert, Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, Khnopff and others. (Ensor is absent here.) Odilon Redon is represented by a large number of pastels and prints, typical of his output. It is useful to have pieces by Maurice Denis, who was an intermittently accomplished painter. There are artists who are not often covered in publications, such as Pointillist Achille Laugé, whose paintings are attractive – the best of the three shown here is a landscape. Louis Hayet is a lightweight painter of theatre interiors. Paul-Élie Ransom is a minor Nabi and involved in the religious syncretism; he is harsh colourist and unoriginal. Louis Valtat’s Woman with Fox Stole (1897-8) is a fine picture, crackling with energy. The proto-Fauvist brushwork and Cloissoniste outlines create a powerful image with the motif balanced by a swirling background. A good marine by him suggests there is more pictures worth attention, outweighing a few weaker Valtat pictures here. A curiosity is a group of early drawings by Claude-Émile Schuffenecker, an artist best known as a forger of Van Gogh than as an artist under his own recognisance. They are illustrations (from c. 1881 to 1885) of everyday scenes of Parisian life, competent, unambitious and somewhat banal.  Gauguin, Maillol, Derain and Braque are represented by minor works. Considering the rarity and cost of Seurat’s paintings, the drawings fill in. However, Seurat’s remarkable drawings are better than most artists’ best paintings.

There is a broad section on posters with classic poster artists. It is striking how these artists fall into different groups and movements yet could translate their art into commercial designs: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis (Post-Impressionism), Bonnard, Vallotton (Nabi), Bottini (Cosmopolitan Realism), Grasset, Mucha, Steinlen (Art Nouveau). Jules Chéret defies classification. Although classified as Art Nouveau, Chéret syncretic style drew from many sources. His preference for facets and angles over curves makes his style not entirely compatible with Art Nouveau. It seems his simplified shapes may have influenced Seurat’s later depiction of figures.    

The Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists who were deeply influenced by Japanese art, Gauguin and were committed to making art from street life and domesticity, especially in print format. All the leading members are included in this exhibition: Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Riviere and Vallotton. The collection of art by Félix Vallotton is large and representative. The woodcuts (commenced 1891) are justly celebrated. The inclusion of a preparatory drawing for the 1897 print The Symphony is a pleasing addition to the prints themselves. Vallotton’s 1899 marriage gave him financial security and allowed him to pursue his ambitions. In 1901 he ceased making woodcuts and devoted himself to making oil paintings, principally nudes, landscapes and still-lifes. War (1915-6) was an exceptional return to the medium of woodcut. It was a suite of prints made to support the military effort of France. They are unsuccessful. Vallotton’s prints were not suitable for grave subjects or action and all fall flat.

The Bonnard works are mainly early Nabi graphics, including posters. There are some small marines with the skies in distinct horizontal strips. The dabbing of varying colours comes from Impressionism but Bonnard’s technique rejects the tenets of Impressionism. The École de Paris works by Matisse, Marcoussis, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet and others are generally bagatelles. Marie Laurencin is never anything more than vapid; Othon Friesz is irredeemably third rate. Raoul Dufy is decorative and nothing more.  

There is a set of Picasso’s Saltimbanques prints. Produced from 1904 to 1905 and editioned in 1913, during the artist’s Blue and Rose periods. These 14 prints are inconsistent; the finish and detail of the prints varies dramatically and it is clear Picasso did not conceive of the group as having any connecting thread other than the subjects that attracted him at the time: portraits, acrobats, the poor, primitive people.  

This catalogue is full of information on the Salon des Indépendants and the avant-garde in Paris at a critical time. There are plenty of surprises. The biographies and bibliography are useful for specialist researchers, particularly anyone studying Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Gilles Genty (ed.), Signac and the Indépendants, Hazan/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (distr. Yale), 2020, hardback, 384pp, 550 illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 300 25 1982 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow

Abb. 1_Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige im Schnee 1[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563), Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur © Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569) is celebrated for his paintings of snow. His blend of realism (accurate depictions of clothing and buildings) and artificiality (landscapes that combine Brabant environs and Alpine topography) made a profound impression at the time and – after a reputational lull – from the Nineteenth Century onwards.

A recent exhibition (23 November 2019-1 March 2020) at Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland collected art associated to its own Bruegel painting The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. As is usual with Bruegel’s major painted compositions, numerous later copies were produced including a version exhibited here. One scholar catalogues 36 copies of this composition, 26 of which he attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

The painting shows the Holy Family sheltering in an adequate shelter in a Brabant town. Townsfolk are continuing with their daily lives – collecting water, cutting willow twigs, conveying tributes or seeking warmth. The scene is set in deep winter, with snow falling. The kings and the Holy Family are ignored by the people, just as the fall of Icarus is ignored by the ploughman in Bruegel’s famous painting in Brussels. There are political references in the picture – including the presence of Spanish troops and the Habsburg insignia on the tribute being sent. The Habsburg Spanish control of the Low Countries was creating resentment at the time the picture was made; it would break out into warfare (on the bases of Reformation theology and national independence) in 1568, the year before Bruegel’s death. The painting is oil on oak panel, 35 x 55cm, in generally good condition. The discovery of the date “1563” alongside the artist’s signature confirms that date of production.

Although a number of Bruegel paintings depict snow and ice, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow is the only painting in which snow is falling. It is apparently the first surviving oil painting of falling snow in Western art. (There are earlier miniatures.) Later versions omit the falling snow, which strongly suggests the copyists (or at least Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose version may have acted as a common source for later copyists) used a detailed drawing Bruegel that did not include snowfall. Other differences include coloration and small details. The older artist would have made such changes, altering his design as he went. Considering the high demand for Bruegel’s art, it is likely that Brueghel never saw a number of father’s paintings, all of which were painted before his son Pieter was born or while he was a small child.

Dendrochronology data proves that this painting was painted on an oak panel from the same plank that was used for Death of the Virgin (c. 1562-5), Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565), imported from the Eastern Baltic. The Adoration panel is smaller than the others and shows evidence of being cut down on the top and right sides, which is corroborated by posthumous copies showing these areas of the composition. However, the copies may be based on drawings and Bruegel may never have actually painted these margins in his picture.Bruegel’s paint handling was new and Impressionistic, radically simplifying forms and allowing the qualities of paint and application to act as a shorthand for the physical bodies he was describing. “Bruegel’s treatment of figures in this small panel is often looser than in his larger works. This Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, with its novel snowflakes, may have represented a somewhat experimental work for Bruegel, which could explain the relatively spontaneous handling.”

The exhibition gathered 15 items, including paintings and engravings. Some of the engravings were derived from Bruegel drawings made specifically for engravers. When Bruegel commenced his career in Antwerp, he was solely a print designer; only later did he begin making oil paintings and move to Brussels. He painted a series of seasons but he was working on a series of prints of seasons, which was left unfinished at his death.

Abb. 6_Pieter van der Heyden nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_Sommer (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, Summer,(1570), engraving, sheet from The Four Seasons, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The print Summer (drawn 1569, cut and printed 1570, posthumously) displays Bruegel’s late ambition to imbue figures of peasants with grandeur and monumentality, inspired by Michelangelo. It also shows his ability to use foreshortening, with the foot and scythe projecting out of the picture plane. (Actually, it displays his lack of anatomical training, as the foot should be larger.) The other print designed was Spring, showing gardeners at work. Two classic compositions by Bruegel (St Jerome and Journey to Emmaus), where one foreground corner to close up and the rest of the low-land landscape is shown from an aerial perspective, with a high horizon line, were published by Hieronymous Cock. Cock also commissioned pastiches of Bruegel’s compositional style, due to the demand for his designs.

Abb. 2_Joannes und Lucas van Doetecum nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_S. Hieronymus in Deserto (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, The Temptation of Saint Jerome, (1556), engraving, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The catalogue contains a section summarising the main observations in French. Although a small volume, The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains significant new information about a key painting by Bruegel and is an approachable book for non-specialist readers.

The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur (SOR)/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2019, paperback, 96pp, 50 col. illus., £24.95, English text, some French, ISBN 978 3 7774 3498 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Kenojuak Ashevak/ᕿᓐᓄᐊᔪᐊᖅ ᐋᓯᕙᒃ, Inuktitut artist

A288_FC

This monograph covers highlights from the art of Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013). Kenojuak was an Inuit artist, part of one the Canadian First Nations of Nunavut. She is the most acclaimed and beloved native artist of Canada’s Northern Territories, considered to be one of the founders of modern Inuit art. She received many national awards and honours, dating from 1967 up to her death. Her art has continued to receive more recognition since her death.

The book gives an overview of the artist’s eventful life. Kenojuak was born into a nomadic Inuktitut clan in a haumuq (igloo) on South Baffin Island. Her family were hunters. Seal hunting was dangerous work and income low. Her father was murdered in a clan dispute, victim of summary justice. Any tale of Kenojuak’s life must include local hunter and part-time artist Johnniebo Ashevak (1923-1972), whom she married in 1946. His art is less well known than hers, although it is well regarded and in national collections. Kenojuak experienced forcible hospital confinement due to tuberculosis (1952-5) and lost children in infancy due to illness. She married twice after Johnniebo’s death and was mother to 16 children over the years, five adopted; seven did not survive infancy.

She learned traditional crafts from her family. Her skill was noticed and encouraged during her hospital stay. Some of her bags, dolls, boots and tapestries used stencils monochrome motifs.

Like other Inuit artists of the Cape Dorset region, her creativity was harnessed and disseminated by the couple Alma and James Archibald Houston. In the 1930s Houston had sold native crafts to Canadians in the South and the couple’s establishment of the print studio in 1956 proved highly successful, causing a sensation and leading to the introduction of Inuit art to Canadians nationwide. The studio allowed Inuit craftsmen to reach new markets and gain a significant source of income

One of the key artistic mediums of Canadian First Nations artists is the soapstone print. Blocks of local soapstone – soft enough to be cut with a knife – are flattened then a matrix cut in relief. The matrix is inked with a roller then a sheet of paper applied over it, taking the ink. The use of stencils allows variation in inking.

A288_IN3

[Image: copyright 2020 Kenojuak Ashevak]

This catalogue for a touring exhibition (2020-2, Saskatoon, Dawson City, Kelowna, Ontario, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat) features Kenojuak’s late art, especially the bird pictures that she was famed for. The well-known late style contrasts with the few examples here of Kenojuak’s work of the 1960s. These pencil drawings lack colour and show less concern for neat shading. They are less visually appealing than the colour works but they have greater rawness and intensity. The freedom apparent compensates for the less polished finish.  As new materials became available she adapted her style to take advantage of colours.

Exhibited art includes drawings (in black and coloured inks), soapstone prints, colour lithographs and an etching with aquatint. Most of the art is late drawings from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, alongside colour prints. Double-page spreads compare the original drawing to the subsequent print. Between the two, there are few changes in composition, only minimal changes to conform to the characteristics of the print medium. (Most of the prints were made by printmakers who transcribed drawings as matrices and editioned the prints.) Most typical of Kenojuak’s art in this book is the single animal or groups of few animals set against a blank background. Often the there are no picture borders, with the motif existing free of setting. Kenojuak favoured horizontal axes.

A288_IN2

[Image: copyright 2020 Kenojuak Ashevak]

Kenojuak’s art shows animals frontally or in profile using curvilinear outlines, patterned shading and bold decorative fans of appendages, referring to feathers and spines. These extravagant appendages induce a hypnotic effect on the viewers. The animals are mainly birds and fishes, with frequent changes of scale. Owls, loons, swans, ravens, gulls, foxes, hares and chars all feature; Kenojuak rarely depicted whole figures in her mature work. Sometimes the animals are in the process of transformation or engaged in unclear (or unspecified) interactions.

This attractive book (trilingual in English, French and Inuktitut) provides an enjoyable introduction to one of Canada’s most beloved artists.

Leslie Boyd, Silaqi Ashevak, Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy, Pomegranate, 2020, hardback, 109pp, fully col. illus., English/French/Inuktitut text, $29.95/C$39.95, ISBN 978 0 7649 9818 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

The Renaissance of Etching

 

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/358012

[Image: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), The Lovers (1527-1530), etching; second state of two, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

This review evaluates the catalogue for The Renaissance of Etching, a recent exhibition of the earliest etchings, charting the development of the medium and its partial (and eventual total) eclipse of engraving (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23 October 2019-20 January 2020; scheduled for Albertina Museum, Vienna, 12 February-10 May 2020). The exhibition covers artists from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France, including others, such as the Swiss Urs Graf (c. 1485-c. 1528).

The oldest forms of printmaking are woodcut or wood engraving (relief method, with the raised matrix on the block holding the ink). A later development was engraving on sheet metal. Originally, iron was used until the 1540s, when it was supplanted by copper; this lasted until now, with zinc becoming a common alternative metal in the Twentieth Century. In etchings the matrix design is cut with a fine gouge, being intaglio printmaking where the ink is held in the depressed lines. The plates were inked, with ink on/in the matrix, damp paper laid on the plate and then ran through a roller press, thereby transferring ink from plate to paper.

Engraving is generally made by a specialist cutter who was not always the designer. It is carefully planned in advance and very difficult to correct. It favours parallel hatching – straight or curvilinear – and sometimes cross hatching and stippling. Etching is an intaglio printmaking system done by drawing lines with a fine needle in a wax (or oil paint) covering the metal plate. This design is then bitten with a mordant (a corrosive solution), leaving the matrix in the metal, which holds the ink. Technically, the engraved plate and the etched plate are similar in appearance and structure. However, etching allows styles that imitate engraving but also permits much greater freedom of handling, design and correction. It favours a more spontaneous approach and permits creation of prints that have the style of a sketch. It is also quicker to execute.

The exhibition The Renaissance of Etching explores the origins of etching and its birth as a regularly practiced printing medium during the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Etching technique was long established. It arrived as a means of printmaking via metalsmiths and armorers in the production of armour, arms and tableware with elaborate incised decoration. The designs included floral, vegetal, abstract, heraldic and pictorial ones. It was the artists of Augsburg and Nuremberg – a noted centre for metalwork in Bavaria – who pioneered print etching on iron plate. This group included Daniel Hopfer (1471-1536), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), his pupil Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and Hans Burgkmair the Younger (1500-c. 1562).

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336272

[Image: Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1515), etching.
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951 (51.501.383), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The first etchings as flat-metal-plate intaglio prints were made around 1490. The earliest illustrated examples are from that time. The first print in the exhibition is dated c. 1500, made by Hopfer, who was the most prolific and creative among the Augsburg etchers. Hopfer is thought to have etched three excellent religious figures on a steel cuirass, with a deep and dense border, exhibited in the display. Hopfer was a brilliant innovator in the field of etching. Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1510-5) is an etching in the style of Dürer (the dramatic cover illustration). Hopfer used brush effects to create wash-like shading. Beham produced work in various genres, adding to his extensive print corpus. Dürer only made a few pieces through etching, preferring to return to the established mediums of woodcut and engraving. His etchings are not qualitatively different from his more numerous and famous engravings.

Damage to plates and prints caused by rusting was only overcome by moving to copper, a move that seems to have been led by Dutch master printmaker Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), following the development of a new mordant. The Germans adopted the copperplate in the 1540s, finding that although the softer metal was less durable than iron, it allowed finer lines and suffered less from corrosion. Later, steel facing of copper plates would increase the durability. Microscopic scrutiny of plates and proofs reveal matrices cut by combinations of engraving, etching and drypoint. We find a range of approaches to craftsmanship, with Dürer and Leyden exhibiting consummate care and Schiavone at the opposite end. “The hastiness of execution and the sketchy, free quality of Schiavone’s paintings, drawings, and prints proved alarming to his contemporaries, who expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with his technique, considering it at once admirable for its spirit and grace but careless for its lack of finish.”

Leyden, Jan Gossart (Mabuse) (c. 1478-1532), Frans Crabbe (c. 1480-1553), Nicolaas Hogenberg (c. 1500-1539), Dirck Vellert (c. 1480/85-c. 1547) and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559) are discussed as practitioners of etching in the Netherlands. Other prominent artists who produced etchings include Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), Flemish artists Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569). Bruegel made a sequence of drawings recalling his journey over the Alps, which would leave such a dramatic legacy in his art, which is ostensibly set in Flanders yet with mountainous terrain. Bruegel’s Alpine landscape drawings no longer exist but we have the etchings, some of which are illustrated. Bruegel started his career in Antwerp as a designer of prints; his Rabbit Hunt (1560) is the only print by his hand. There is no extant painting of this composition.

The Rabbit Hunt, 1560

[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt (1560), etching and engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (DG 1955/37) (Etch-170)]

Francesco Parmigianino (1503-1540) produced numerous etchings. The fast and free medium lent itself to the artist’s temperament. Parmigianino made designs for block cutters to translate into chiaroscuro woodcuts – a specialist skill – but was able to express himself quickly and directly in etching. His art was noted for its grace and elegance. His chalk and highlight drawings feature extensive contrapposto, exaggerated proportions and sweeping lines.

There was a burst of activity in France of the 1540s, particularly at Fountainebleau palace, a centre of court patronage. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1511-1585) produced some very detailed and precise architectural etchings. Large Architectural Composition (1551) is of an invented Italianate Renaissance palace. It is so detailed and realistically lit that it functions as a painting or advanced computer generated imagery that one finds in architectural presentations or video games.

Compositions in all of the major genres make an appearance in etched form: biblical, proverb, portrait, landscape, history, mythology, topography, cartography, architecture, scenography and ornamental. There are some appealing images illustrated, including those with backstories. Altdorfer made a pair of etchings of the interior of the synagogue at Regensburg in 1519 just as it was being demolished. The Jews of the city were expelled and their synagogue replaced by a church. Altdorfer documents a building in the knowledge that it was due to be destroyed and that life in the city was about to change.

26.72.68

[Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

A view of a village by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is printed on blue paper. A handful of these etchings were handcoloured with watercolour, presumably by assistants in the print studio. Non-guild members (including women and children) were sometimes paid a pittance to colour prints individually. Hirschvogel designed the defences of Vienna in preparation for Turkish invasion. His map of Vienna is included. Mannerist Juste de Juste (1501-1559) produced a peculiar etching of nude male acrobats in a highly artificial pose. The body forms, lack of faces and extreme stylisation prefigure (and perhaps inspired?) Salvador Dalí’s playful nude drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen illustrated in his autobiography.

The use of comparative illustrations and multiple impressions gives a broad view of the practices and products of early printmakers who used etching. In some cases the original compositional sketch in ink is displayed next to the resultant print. The essayists are specialists who explain the development of etching in terms of national schools and regional centres of activity. The essays and catalogue entries are informative, clearly written and present the latest research (including original research) on exhibited items. A glossary, notes, bibliography and index comprise appendices. The Renaissance of Etching is an ideal reference work for anyone interested in the development of printmaking and the art of the Late Renaissance.

 

Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of Etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale), 2019, hardback, 304pp, 237 illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 58839 649 5

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art