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Ludwig Meidner Self-Portrait with Burin (1920)

Intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning "to incise." The intaglio techniques—including etching, engraving, drypoint, and aquatint—all involve incising fine lines into a metal plate. When ink is forced into the lines, and a sheet of paper placed on top and run through a press, the ink is transferred from the metal plate to the paper. While engraving and drypoint involve incising the lines directly into the printing plate using sharp, needle-like tools, etching involves the use of acid to etch (or "bite") an image into the plate. Since the Renaissance, artists from Rembrandt van Rijn to Pablo Picasso have used intaglio techniques to create some of their most important works. The Expressionists exploited its potential for fine, scratchy lines to create images that range from nervous and sensitive to frenzied and dramatic.

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Max Klinger


1903 (published 1904)


Death swoops into a hospital ward as a nun frantically fights to protect her charges. In The Plague, Klinger gave terrifying shape to an invisible killer. Klinger claimed printmaking as the home of fantasy and asserted that, because the images are rendered in black and white, the medium requires more imagination than does painting. In his many prints and portfolios, he elaborated themes of death, love, and fantasy. A figure of awe-inspiring prestige around the turn of the 20th century, Klinger sparked the fine-art print revival in Germany and was enormously influential on Expressionist printmaking.
<i>Menacing Head</i>

Paul Klee

Menacing Head



Klee’s first serious work in any medium was the Inventions, a series of intaglio prints, which he made between 1903 and 1905. These prints reveal Klee’s mordant humor and his desire to break free from the boredom of academic art and bourgeois social conventions. The last of the Inventions, Menacing Head, was inspired by the musings of the German poet C.F. Hebbel, who wondered why a brain could not be a fist; Klee transformed the fist into a little demon. The fine, detailed lines he could produce with etching suited his compulsion for meticulously rendered yet bizarre imagery.
<i>Joy in Life</i>

Emil Nolde

Joy in Life


Etching and tonal etching

Nolde considered his Fantasies series of etchings, from October 1905, to be a “bold strike against tradition.” While the other prints from the series required numerous proofs, Nolde completed Joy in Life, his favorite, in just a few hours. He smeared the ground and acid with his hands and used his fingers to create the image of a gleefully dancing naked couple, whose ragged and awkward appearance struck at conventions of taste and beauty and who seem to emerge from a haze that evokes Nolde's smoke-filled Berlin room. Nolde recognized the audacity of what he had accomplished: “The etchings are now full of life, an intoxication, a dance, a rocking and rolling of tones…. This is not to everyone’s taste.”
<i>Tightrope Walkers</i>

Erich Heckel

Tightrope Walkers



The simplest and most immediate intaglio technique is drypoint, in which the artist uses a diamond-tipped needle to scratch the image into the plate. This directness made it a favored technique of the Brücke artists, including Heckel. Here, he sketched the background with a few wispy lines, while strong, deep strokes provide balance and stability to a view of tightrope walkers practicing their art. Rather than depict a scene of death-defying acrobatics, Heckel focused on the quiet psychological drama between the man and the woman, who tentatively inch toward each other. The fragile lines in a drypoint plate typically yield only a few good prints, but for the artists of the Brücke, who hand-printed their works in small editions, this was not a problem.
<i>Hamburg, Mild Atmosphere</i>

Emil Nolde

Hamburg, Mild Atmosphere


Etching and tonal etching

Nolde made 19 etchings and four woodcuts during an incredibly productive three-week stay in Hamburg in late winter 1910. He worked mostly at night, waking often just in time to snatch the plates from the acid bath. In this print, Nolde renders the bustling activity of the port, at the time one of Europe’s busiest, through frenetic squiggles and repetitive hatching. His use of soft-ground, which leaves behind a grainy residue, gives the air and sea a palpable, sooty atmosphere, eliciting the smoke of the passing ships. With no distinction between sea and sky, Nolde evokes the cold, gray penumbral days of northern Germany.
<i>Self-Portrait, Hand at the Forehead</i>

Käthe Kollwitz

Self-Portrait, Hand at the Forehead

(1910, published c. 1946/1948)

Etching and drypoint

Kollwitz’s initial work in printmaking was in etching, which she learned in winter 1890–91, before marrying and moving to Berlin, and it remained her preferred medium until around 1911. (In subsequent years she became more involved with lithography and woodcut.) She made this self-portrait as a birthday present for her husband, Karl, although he claimed to see no resemblance in the darkly brooding woman depicted here. Kollwitz had long before mastered intaglio printmaking, but this print conveys her ongoing frustration and self-doubt with her skills. Kollwitz worked slowly, and she often created a dizzying number of states, proofs, and reprints, a prolificacy that still befuddles scholars and catalogers.
<i>Self-Portrait with Burin</i>

Ludwig Meidner

Self-Portrait with Burin



Meidner, in one of his 40 self-portrait prints, shows himself holding a burin, the tool of his trade. His face and hands are depicted with a frenetic net of lines that suggest surging creative energy. Drypoint was Meidner’s preferred printmaking medium; he learned it from Hermann Struck, who tutored many Berlin-based Expressionists in intaglio techniques, and whose 1908 book Die Kunst des Radieren (The art of etching) influenced generations of German printmakers.
<i>Death and the Artist</i> from <i>Dance of Death</i>

Lovis Corinth

Death and the Artist from Dance of Death

(1921, published 1922)

Etching and drypoint from a portfolio of four etchings and one etching and drypoint

Corinth, holding his favorite diamond-tipped drypoint needle, pauses in the middle of his work as the spectral figure of Death approaches from behind. In the last years of his life, Corinth was incredibly prolific and took advantage of the booming postwar print market. Corinth excelled at wresting deep, rich tones from his plates, and here he combines the delicate textures of soft-ground etching with the velvety darkness of drypoint to create evocative shadows. This print also pays homage to Hermann Struck, who tutored him in these techniques.
<i>Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat</i>

Max Beckmann

Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat

(1921, published not before 1922)


Beckmann presents himself as a man of the world, nattily dressed, holding a cigarette and gazing steadily at the viewer. He removed a studio interior from the earlier state of this print, shifting all focus to his imposing presence and the surrounding vanitas symbols, including a lamp and an ashtray. In this final state, he reinforced the drypoint lines, creating areas of exceptional inky blackness, against which his starched shirtfront, collar, and cuffs and his cigarette stand out in pristine whiteness, thanks to the careful wiping of the plate. Beckmann favored drypoint at this time, and this print ranks as one of the most recognizable of his 80 self-portrait prints.
<i>Mutzli (Portrait of Mrs. Dix)</i>

Otto Dix

Mutzli (Portrait of Mrs. Dix)



In this portrait Dix turns his piercing gaze to his wife. He exploits the rich, velvety burr of the drypoint medium to capture every strand of her exactly bobbed hair, lashes, and brows, and even the soft lines around her eyes and mouth. Dix had first learned intaglio printmaking after World War I, from Conrad Felixmüller in Dresden, and was later coached by Wilhelm Herberholz in Düsseldorf. It was under Herberholz’s tutelage that Dix worked on his monumental portfolio, The War.
<i>Corpse in Barbed Wire (Flanders)</i> from <i>The War</i>

Otto Dix

Corpse in Barbed Wire (Flanders) from The War


Etching and aquatint from a portfolio of fifty etching, aquatint and drypoints

Dix later stated that he “wanted to show the destroyed earth, the corpses, the wounds” in his portfolio The War. He exploited every material advantage of intaglio printmaking—the trenchant lines of etching, the mottled tones of aquatint, and the dense barb of drypoint—to capture the devastation and decay he witnessed as a solider on the front during World War I. In this image of a corpse, Dix created the ghastly images of white bones by blocking the action of the acid on the plate; multiple acid baths corroded the other areas enough to evoke the horrors of chemical warfare and its mutilation of flesh.
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