Sunday, January 4, 2009

Prints and drawings - Gustave Assire

Many artists prepare to create a print – be it an etching, engraving, lithograph or whatever – by making a preliminary drawing. In this occasional series, I will juxtapose original drawings with the prints made after them.

My first choice is an obscure artist named Gustave Assire. The pen-and-watercolour drawing below, signed and dated 1926, is a preparatory study for Assire’s classic suite of etchings of the Parisian underworld of brothels and nightclubs, Images Secrètes de Paris, with an accompanying text by Pierre Mac Orlan. This was published by René Kieffer in 1928 in an edition of 550 copies; the etchings were printed by Ducros et Colas. 450 copies were on tinted wove paper, with the definitive state of the etchings. 50 were on tinted wove paper with the etchings in two states. 50 copies were printed on Japan paper, with the 20 etchings in three states (or occasionally in two states plus a different rejected etching) plus an original watercolour study. I have copy 41 of the edition on Japan. There also exist 50 copies of a monochrome suite of reproductions of the 50 watercolours; unfortunately I’ve never seen one of these. They seem to have been sold separately.


Gustave Assire, Le choix
Original watercolour

The watercolour study shows a client making his choice in the salon of a maison close, with the madam at his side and the girls lined up before him. Assire draws it with great humour and verve; his emphasis throughout Images Secrètes is on the liveliness of the scenes he records, rather than on the tawdry side. Assire was not alone in this attitude. In the 1920s, the life of the Paris prostitute supplied much of the subject matter of writers such as Pierre Mac Orlan and Francis Carco. Mac Orlan, by the way, is probably the only writer in the history of literature to reserve his real name – Pierre Dumarchey – for his pornographic works, while publishing all his respectable writings under a pseudonym. This titillating literary output, peppered with street slang and worldly wisdom, was in turn matched by a stream of etchings, lithographs, and drawings revealing the underbelly of Parisian life. It’s a wonder, in fact, that there was any room for clients in the brothels of Paris, such was the stream of writers and artists populating them for purposes of research.


Gustave Assire, Le choix
Original etching, only state

Judging from my copy, the watercolours were studies in their own right rather than simple preparatory sketches for the etchings. Le choix is one of the etchings where Assire had two attempts at the subject – an initial etching, reproduced above, which he then abandoned, and a second revised version. The abandoned etchings were only included in the 50 copies on Japan. Neither the first nor the second versions of the etching Le choix is based directly on the watercolour, although there are evident similarities in the stance of the girls, the bows in their hair, and the decision in all three images to view the scene from behind the line-up, so that we are looking at the client, rather than sharing his vantage-point. Why Assire was dissatisfied with his first attempt isn’t clear, but he may have felt that the composition was too crowded.


Gustave Assire, Le choix
Original etching, first state of two

One of the interesting things about these etchings is the artist’s use of extra drawings or remarques all around the border. Often remarques seem to me a rather tired and irrelevant way of “adding value” to etchings, but Assire’s remarques really do remark on the main image. They’re full of life and interest, and they offer us a series of sideways glimpses away from the central subject into the world surrounding it. Usually remarques are added as an afterthought, but in these etchings by Assire they are integral to the image, and planned as part of the overall composition from the start.


Gustave Assire, Le choix
Original etching, second and final state

Gustave Assire was born in Angers in 1870, and died in 1941. He studied under Gustave Moreau, Jean-Paul Laurens, Jean Benjamin-Constant and Fernand Cormon at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. In many ways Gustave Assire was the archetypical Montmartre artist in the mould laid down by Toulouse-Lautrec. When not observing Parisian nightlife and low-life, Assire could be found sketching at the Cirque Medrano. Below are a few more of his Images Secrètes, all in the final state.


Gustave Assire, Bar de la Villette
Original etching, third and final state


Gustave Assire, Jazz-Band
Original etching, third and final state


Gustave Assire, Le Moulin Rouge
Original etching, third and final state


Gustave Assire, Le Lapin Agile
Original etching, third and final state


Gustave Assire, Maison close in Place Saint-Georges
Original etching, third and final state


Gustave Assire, Streetwalkers in Les Buttes Chaumont
Original etching, third and final state

3 comments:

Jane said...

The little sketches around the edges of the drawings caught my eye. I can't tell if they are random or meant to form a border commentary on the main them?

Neil said...

It's hard to photograph these images in a way that shows the remarques as you would see them with your own eye - they just fade into the background in a photo, and if you try to manipulate the image, the central image distorts. But they are definitely supposed to be a commentary - sometimes supportive, sometimes ironic - on the main theme.

Neil said...

A point about remarques is that while the main image is etched into the metal plate with acid, remarques are usually inscribed directly onto the plate with a drypoint needle. Artists since Rembrandt have used drypoint to add subtle detail to etched plates. The drypoint line is less robust than the etched line, hence the tendency for remarques to fade into near-invisibility in photographs (at least when taken by me!).