Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rare, medium, well done

The different techniques of printmaking are often described, but it is rare to be able to compare the same image in several different mediums (or media, if you prefer). I have a few examples that allow me to make some tentative comments about the pluses and minuses of one medium or another for the expression of a particular artistic vision.

One is an image by Lucien Mainssieux (1885-1958) that I have as a pen-and-ink drawing, as an etching, and as a lithograph. It started, I would guess, as a simple pencil drawing of a young couple waking up in the morning – probably from life.

Lucien Mainssieux, L'Éveil, drawing

I would regard the pen-and-ink drawing as a firming-up of this initial (supposed-and-guessed-at) pencil drawing. It is one of a set of ink drawings I have for all the etchings by Mainssieux in the book La Nuit de Fès by the brothers Jérome and Jean Tharaud (real names Ernest and Charles Tharaud), published in 1930. The drawings are very close to the etchings, but of course they feel very different. Some of the preliminary drawings I have acquired are on very unprepossessing paper, but these by Mainssieux are on BFK Rives. The ink has absorbed happily into this lovely wove paper, and the resulting drawing has a sketchy impressionistic softness that really feels as if you were standing in the bedroom observing the scene.

The etching based on this drawing is a much harder, more definite, more intense image, bitten quite deeply into the plate and then hand-printed on Japan paper by Edmond Rigal. The book La Nuit de Fès is fairly typical of the French livre d’artiste or livre de luxe in being printed on a descending order of fine papers: 25 copies on Japan (of which 5 also had suites of the prints), 25 on Madagascar, 50 on Hollande van Gelder, and 750 on BFK Rives; as you can see, even the cheapest copies were on beautiful paper. There were also 40 hors-commerce (not-for-sale) copies, of which mine, with all the original drawings, was copy I. The hors-commerce copies were on a variety of the above papers, mine being on Japan.

Lucien Mainssieux, L'Éveil, etching

The immediately obvious difference is in the extraneous detail. The couple in bed are pretty much as in the drawing. The wall behind them is much more intensely worked with cross-hatching and the suggestion of a latticed headboard to the bed, whereas in the drawing this whole area is merely indicated with some insouciant scribbled lines. To the bottom right are a tea or coffee pot and two cups on a table, added since the drawing. The loss between the drawing and the etching is a certain spontaneity and immediacy; the gain is a greater specificity, more detail, and that indefinable texture and depth you get with an etched line rather than a drawn one. There’s always a sense of a third dimension in an etching.

My third example of this same image, titled L’Éveil (Waking Up), has none of this third dimension, for it is a planographic image – a lithograph, in which no line is etched or incised, as in intaglio prints such as an etching or engraving, or raised, as in relief prints such as wood engravings. Instead a lithograph is drawn on and printed from the flat plane of a lithographic stone (or zinc or aluminium).

Lucien Mainssieux, L'Éveil, lithograph

The lithograph retains the table with the pot and cups, eliminates the fussy etched detail of the headboard and wall, and adds some bits of decoration and a mirror on the far wall. It also reverses or flips the whole image. The result is not as immediate as the drawing, or as definite as the etching, but it has a sense of tenderness that neither of the others quite achieves.

The lithograph is one of a suite of 20 printed on vélin d’Arches, accompanying the first 20 copies of Éloge de Lucien Mainssieux (In Praise of Lucien Mainssieux), published by Bruker in 1950 in a total of 200 copies; the books were printed on vélin de Rives. Twenty years had passed between La Nuit de Fès and Éloge de Lucien Mainssieux, but this image evidently still haunted the imagination of the artist, so much so that he decided to reinterpret it as a lithograph as one of seven original prints for this celebration of his life’s work.

Only one of those seven prints, the etching/aquatint Medina, is in colour, and this is an indication, I think, of Mainssieux’s essential flaw as an artist, which is that he was a draughtsman, not a colourist. His etchings, drawings, and black-and-white lithographs are subtle and expressive. Their loose confident line and their characteristic subject matter of North Africa and the female nude both drew comparisons with the work of Henri Matisse. But Matisse was a master not just of line but also of colour, and there Mainssieux could not follow.

Lucien Mainssieux, Medina, colour lithograph, signed and justified 3/20

Lucien Mainssieux was born in Voiron (Isère), and studied under Jules Flandrin and Jean-Paul Laurens. Probably the biggest influence on his style, however, was his close friend, the printmaker André Dunoyer de Segonzac, another artist whose posthumous reputation is compromised because he was a master of black-and-white rather than colour. But what the art of Mainssieux does have in abundance is a sense of rhythm and harmony – not surprising, as Lucien Mainssieux was also an accomplished violinist, and the music and drama critic of the revue Le Crapouillet.

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