Thursday, September 2, 2010

A master of engraving: Albert Decaris

Copper plates were, until about 1820, the only metal on which intaglio prints, either engravings or etchings, were made. As Bamber Gascoigne explains in his excellent book How to Identify Prints, steel plates were first used in the 1820s "to print long runs of banknotes which would remain identical throughout the run and which would be so finely engraved as to make forgery difficult." The harder metal was more difficult to work with, but enabled very fine detailing, and the plates never wore out. Steel plates became popular for various kinds of subjects, notably topographical views, which might be printed in large numbers to appeal to tourists. From the 1850s it was possible for artists to work on the more forgiving copper plates, which were then subsequently "steel-faced", a process in which a thin layer of iron is electro-plated to the surface of the copper, thereby extending the life of the plate. Steel plates remained the choice for banknotes and postage stamps, copper for fine art. But one important twentieth-century engraver, Albert Decaris (1901-1988), made engraving on steel his life's work. Decaris seems to have valued steel for the immaculate clarity of line that can be achieved, and for the shimmering effect that such lines produce when engraved in parallel. Albert Decaris engraved over 500 postage stamps for the French and French colonial postal services, and also illustrated a large number of books. I have 3 sets of prints by Decaris, showing different aspects of his art. All exhibit an astonishing technical virtuosity, but they can feel a bit stark. For that reason my favourites are his engravings of Paris, which are not just detailed and evocative but full of warm feeling for the city he loved.

Albert Decaris, Île de la Cité
Engraving, 1950

Albert Decaris, Feux d'artifice sur la rive droite
Engraving, 1950

Albert Decaris, Feux d'artifice sur la rive gauche
Engraving, 1950

Albert Decaris, Montmartre et le Sacré Coeur
Engraving, 1950

Albert Decaris, Rue Drevet à Montmartre
Engraving, 1950

Albert Decaris, Rue Broca
Engraving, 1950

Decaris's studio was on the left bank of the Seine, with a view over the river and the Louvre. The wood engraver Mark Severin visited him there in 1950, and wrote in his essay "Decaris, engraver" in The Studio, "One's first impression on a visit to the studio of Decaris is of constellations of little white metal splinters scintillating like stars on the dark floor, which has suffered from the continuous shower, and then of the window opening on the Seine and the Louvre."

Albert Decaris, Notre-Dame et la rive gauche
Engraving, 1950

Albert Decaris, La rive droite et le Louvre
Engraving, 1950

These magnificent views of Paris were made for the book Paris by André Suarès. This was published in 1950 in an edition of 250 copies, all printed on Montval laid paper. Additionally there were 50 separate suites of the engravings printed on Auvergne paper, and 25 albums of the engravings. My images show the engravings as they appear on the handmade Auvergne paper of one of the 50 suites. The engravings were printed by Georges Visat.

Albert Decaris, Florence
Engraving, 1930

Albert Decaris, Pisa
Engraving, 1930

Albert Decaris, Street in Siena
Engraving, 1930

Paris was not the only city to play an important role in the life of Albert Decaris, for in 1919 at the age of just 18 he won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome for engraving, which entitled the winners to an extended period in the Villa Medici in Rome to further their studies. Decaris's time in Rome, though interrupted by illness and then by military service, was crucially important to him, and Italian subjects seem to have appealed strongly to him. This made the commission to illustrate the travel book Du Sang, de la Volupté, et de la Mort by Maurice Barrès, which is set largely in Italy and Spain, a perfect choice for Decaris. This was published in 1930 in an edition of 316 copies, with 85 separate suites of the engravings printed on B.F.K. Rives by Edmond Rigal; again, my photos show one of the suites.

Albert Decaris, Women of Seville
Engraving, 1930

Albert Decaris, Bullfight
Engraving, 1930

Albert Decaris, Spanish fiesta
Engraving, 1930

As can be seen from the illustrations above, after Albert Decaris had formed his mature style it did not alter or develop much. 20 years separate the two series of prints, but you would never guess it. My third set of prints comes from 1967, when Decaris illustrated a monumental edition of Plutarch's Lives. I don't have this 3-volume work, but instead a publisher's sample, with 21 of the 58 full-page engravings, which were printed by Serge Beaune on Marais wove paper. This publication really took advantage of the hard-wearing quality of steel plates, being issued in an edition of 3600 copies (of which I believe 100 were on Antique Bellegarde paper, with a double suite of 8 "planches refusées"). Because I don't have the text, I am left in a few cases guessing precisely what subject is depicted in the images. These vigorous engravings show no slackening of skill, but lack, for me, the personal element that gives the depictions of Paris their particular charm.

Albert Decaris, Theseus and the Minotaur
Engraving, 1967

Albert Decaris, Cleopatra
Engraving, 1967

Albert Decaris, Caractacus in chains(?)
Engraving, 1967

Albert Decaris, The ruins of Athens (?)
(Any ideas as to who this solitary brooding figure is?)
Engraving, 1967

Albert Decaris was born in Sotteville-les-Rouen in the Seine-Maritime, and died in Paris. Although he was highly respected as an artist and achieved various high honours - elected to the Institut in 1943, named an official "peintre de la Marine" in 1973 - his decision to concentrate on commissioned work such as book illustrations and postage stamps meant that his art has not received the attention you would expect for the youngest person ever to win the Grand Prix de Rome, and the first person ever to win the Medaille d'Argent at the Paris salon with his first exhibit. His art may be severe, but it is also meticulously observed, and rendered with extraordinary skill. I'll leave the last words to Mark Severin, who wrote, "The refinement as much as the sublimity of his art, which is essentially typically French, makes him one of the great masters of engraving."

6 comments:

Ravilious and Bawden Blog said...

The firework pictures are amazing! Thanks for sharing Neil.

Neil said...

I love the pair of firework pictures, they really use that shimmering, burnished, almost moiré effect to its utmost.

Roxana said...

yes the fireworks!!! but the entire Paris-series is stunning, and makes me nostalgic and wanting to post more Paris-pictures soon :-)

Neil said...

Roxana - The whole Paris series (27 large engravings, including the cover) is fantastic - the best work Decaris ever did, from what I have seen.

Jessica said...

Neil, I'm partial to the Theseus and the Minotaur
engraving. It has a 15th-century sensibility but a contemporary style. Great looking piece! - Jessica

Neil said...

Jessica, in 1955 Decaris illustrated Henriot's Mythologie des Anciens Grecs et Romains with 66 engravings. I've never seen a copy, but I imagine the illustrations may be similar in style to this Theseus. There's quite a nice Leda and the Swan in the illustrations for Du Sang, de la Volupté, et de la Mort.