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Engraving

6. c 1900 and after

Source: Oxford University Press

Freed from its reproductive role, burin-engraving regained vitality in the early 20th century and developed in two radically different ways. One direction was associated with the avant-garde and formalism, which emphasized pure line as an element of interest in itself. Such printmakers were involved with abstraction, technical experimentation and colour printing and often used engraving in combination with other techniques. The second direction, centred in Britain and figurative in content, looked back to engraving’s early history for inspiration. The artists of such prints often specialized in engraving and did not mix techniques. Less formalist in their approach, they tried to recapture the line quality of 15th-century engraving, and for these engravers line did not exist independent of image.

(i) Modernism and Cubism

Despite the burin’s capacity to incise the most elegant and flowing of lines, its association with the mechanical drudgery of engraving tonal equivalents meant that artists did not consider it a tool for creative use. Artists favoured other techniques for reflecting the flowing linearity characteristic of European art c. 1900. The idea that an engraving could be an original print returned under the auspices of Cubism, with its geometric rather than organic line quality. Picasso’s early prints were etchings and drypoints, but in such later Cubist prints as Man with Guitar (1915; see 1981 exh. cat., no. 28) he used the burin to rework an etched image in a completely novel way; he exploited the rich blackness of the engraved line, showing its crisp directionality, graceful arcs, sharpness and burr. To this he added heavy plate-tone and spot wiping to achieve a new context for the engraved line. Throughout his career Picasso enjoyed and used aspects of engraving that had never been admitted before, such as the resistance of the metal. He often worked with an unsharpened tool, which stuttered its way through the copper, kicking up sharp burr. He also deliberately signed and dated his plates, so that his script prints in reverse.

The Cubist Emile Laboureur (1877–1943) experimented with a variety of etching techniques before taking up the portable technique of engraving during his war service (1914–16). He engraved his distinctive stylized images using crisp lines and arcs against white paper, which were interspersed with hatching that flattens and patterns rather than modelling form. Paul Dubreuil also worked in a manner reminiscent of Laboureur’s style. John Marin, one of the few American artists influenced by Cubism who engraved, made six prints using the burin in the 1920s. The Polish artist Joseph Hecht (1891–1952) studied in Kraków and in Norway before moving to Paris in 1921. Along with other Polish engravers, he incorporated elements of folk art and decorative patterning in his manner of drawing animals and landscapes with the burin. Despite his traditional craft training as a professional engraver, he came to see the engraved line as interesting in itself apart from what it described and was interested in how it functioned with white paper. His approach to engraving was profoundly to influence printmaking.

(ii) Historical revival

In Britain engravers approached engraving in a very different manner from the modernists, sustaining a connection with the past through a high level of craftsmanship, a sense of historicism and preservation of the print’s intimate scale. Robert Sargent Austin (1895–1973), the leading British engraver in the 1920s, emulated Dürer’s early style with great delicacy and rigorous drawing. Many of the British engravers active in the 1920s and 1930s were associated with the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (which admitted engravers only in 1926) and with the Bank of England. They included Stanley Anderson (1881–1966), Henry John Fanshawe Badeley (b 1874), Enid Butcher ( fl c. 1930), Stephen Gooden (1892–1955), William Morgan (b 1903) and Harry Morley (1881–1945). David Jones engraved copperplate illustrations for private press books using a very open, elegant, wiry line.

During the 1930s, while many American artists were making lithographs, the American scene-painter and etcher Reginald Marsh learnt to engrave in a formal style by taking private lessons from a retired banknote engraver. By 1939 he was making pure engravings that startlingly combined his Realist drawing style with the lozenge crosshatching of banknote engraving. Armin Landeck (1905–84) was another printmaker who found engraving well suited to his expressive architectural imagery, drawn with closely massed parallels and spider-web line networks.

(iii) S. W. Hayter, abstraction and experimentation

Under the influence of Surrealism and Automatism, S. W. Hayter, who had studied engraving with Joseph Hecht in Paris (1926), liberated line from literal pictorial description. He created abstract, non-objective images through the constant turning of the plate as the burin passed through the copper. He engraved over passages of textured soft ground startend, combined engraving with lift-ground etching and gouged out areas (gauffrage) that print as uninked three-dimensional relief. He introduced the idea of surface and intaglio printing from the same plate, perfected colour viscosity printing and took casts of engravings in plaster.

In 1927 Hayter founded Atelier 17 (Paris, 1927–40; New York, 1945–50; Paris, 1950–) as a workshop for experimental intaglio printmaking. Hundreds of artists who worked at Atelier 17 tried engraving but most found the medium too disciplined and indirect. Engravers there included John Buckland-Wright (1897–1954), Dorothy Dehner (b 1901), Gabor Peterdi (b 1915), Sue Fuller (b 1914), André Racz (b 1916), Ian Hugo (1900–1984) and Mauricio Lasansky. Hayter’s personal engraving style, based on improvisation and chance, influenced Jackson Pollock, who made seven engravings with Hayter in 1944–5. Hayter’s experimental approach and his bringing together intaglio printmaking and abstraction were major influences on European and American printmaking in the 1940s and 1950s.

Affected by the large scale of Abstract Expressionist paintings, printmakers expanded the scale of their works. This encouraged changes in burin technique, such as the use of powerful, deeply cut, expressive, long, sweeping strokes and violent jabs. The virtuosity, control and strength required to cut such lines is, in some ways, reminiscent of Mannerist engraving.

The practice of engraving in the USA after World War II was due largely to Hayter. Many of the artists who worked with him set up their own printmaking workshops in art schools and universities, such as Gabor Peterdi at Yale University, New Haven, CT. Mauricio Lasansky made large, mixed intaglio colour prints containing powerful passages of engraving, and his grotesque, mythic, apocalyptic and political images were drawn with impassioned intensity. He established an important centre of experimental intaglio printmaking at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. He saw engraving as a central skill and insisted that his students master it. Although most of Lasansky’s students did not continue to use engraving, by the late 20th century the majority of American artists working with the burin were Iowa-trained. Some printmakers combined electric engraving tools, dental tools and multiple-line gravers with the traditional burin, for example Virginia Myers (b 1927), who also used engraving with a metallic-foil stamping process in her gesturally drawn figure and landscape prints.

(iv) Late 20th-century engraving

Intaglio printmaking branched in two distinct directions c. 1970: artists who made their own prints, and those who worked collaboratively. Printmakers who made their own prints became associated with ‘academic’ printmaking. Most contemporary engraving falls in this category. Publisher-financed collaborative printmaking, involving well-known painters working with master printers, favoured complicated, innovative and expensive processes but produced little in the way of engraving. Since engraving is image-oriented rather than process-oriented, solitary, technically demanding and time-consuming it has no need of a collaborative situation. One artist who worked collaboratively, Frank Stella, updated Hayter’s approach by combining engraving with computer-generated imagery, relief, aquatint and etching in enormous, multiplate prints produced at Tyler Graphics in the 1980s.

In the late 20th century many American printmakers were using engraving in combination with other intaglio techniques, including Peter Milton (b 1930), who combined elegant burin work with photosensitive ground, aquatint and lift-ground etching in his black-and-white prints. Pure engraving at the end of the 20th century had moved beyond the earlier formalist focus on line per se to focus on figurative imagery with a renewed interest in rich tone. The few artists working as engravers selected the burin for its unique ability to produce its characteristic lines and tones and for its simplicity of means. In the USA they included Beth van Hoesen (b 1926), Evan Lindquist (b 1936), Brian Paulsen and Amy Worthen (b 1946). The situation in Britain was more diverse. Such Hayter-trained engravers as Jean Lodge (born in the USA) flourished, while traditional engravers in the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers continued to dominate the British conception of the medium. Henry Wilkinson, David Wickes, Ann Le Bas (b 1930) and Lawrence Jossett (b 1910) made delicate engravings executed with the highest craftsmanship. Britain remained the one place where traditional engraving techniques for silversmiths, gunmakers and banknote engravers as well as artists continued to be taught. Students from Britain and other countries came to study engraving in the three-year silversmiths’ course at the City of London Polytechnic (now London Guildhall University), Sir John Cass College of Art, intended primarily for students planning to qualify by examination for the guilds.

Burin-engraving flourished perhaps most conspicuously in France, where the country’s rich and varied tradition of engraving was reflected in the strength and variety of its engravers, including Albert Flocon ( fl mid-century–1980s), a major practitioner and theorist of modernist burin engraving and its relationship to geometry and curvilinear perspective. Both experimental and traditional engraving techniques were taught to printmakers trained in the fine arts academy system. At the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts burin engraving became a required part of the training of printmakers. To qualify for the Prix de Rome, students were required to execute a plate engraved with a burin. In central France, at the Ecole Régionale des Beaux-Arts in Saint-Etienne, the traditional craft of gun engraving, long associated with that city, continued to be taught side by side with engraving for printmakers.

Surrealism continued to inspire some of the most interesting European engraving, including the work of a number of French artists outside the Hayter circle. Marc d’Autry engraved grotesque and mythological creatures with a technique inspired by Dürer. Philippe Mohlitz (b 1941) of Bordeaux, a spiritual successor to Jean Duvet and Rodolphe Bresdin, made obsessive Surrealist fantasies designed with grim humour. His lines are delicately engraved but densely packed, creating rich, velvet blacks. Surrealism also influenced the Italian engraver Carla Horat (b 1938). The Italian artist Luce Delhore (b 1952), born in Belgium, is an exception to the generally figurative style of contemporary engraving: he combined burin, drypoint and roulette in rich, luminous abstractions. Engraving and mezzotint became popular in Japan, with an emphasis on contemporary design and craftsmanship. Mitsuru Ishibashi (b 1951) engraved mechanical and graphlike abstractions, using straight, rich burin lines with impressive effect.

Amy Namowitz Worthen
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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