Thursday, March 3, 2011

In the twilight zone: a mezzotint by Raphaël Drouart

Mezzotint is a method of creating a tonal intaglio image; the name means "half-tint" in Italian. The French term, manière noire ("black manner") expresses the particular nature of this printmaking method more clearly. The special quality of mezzotints is the the subtlety with which they graduate from purest black to white. For this reason the method is especially suited to muted and mysterious subjects, murky twilights and forbidden shadows. English readers will be familiar with the supernatural powers lurking in such a picture in M. R. James's classic ghost story "The Mezzotint".

Raphaël Drouart, Hermaphrodite et Salmacis
Mezzotint, 1922

Raphaël Drouart's mezzotint Hermaphrodite et Salmacis depicts just such a twilight moment. The story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, though it is older than that. The fifteen-year-old Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, has left Mount Ida, and chanced upon the nymph Salmacis. For her, it is love at first sight, but Hermaphroditus rebuffs her. So the nymph waits for him to bathe in her pool and there, where she herself has semi-divine powers, she clasps him to her and begs the gods that they may be inseparably united. And so they become one dual-sexed being, the first hermaphrodite.

Raphaël Drouart, Faisans
Wood engraving, 1922

A painter and sculptor as well as printmaker, Raphaël Drouart took up printmaking after WWI, mastered every technique, and introduced many innovations of his own. Drouart was born in Choisy-le-Roi (Val de Marne), and studied under Fernand Cormon and Maurice Denis. Never a modernist, Drouart's art has its roots in Art Nouveau and Symbolism.

Raphaël Drouart, L'Été
Wood engraving in two colours (en camaïeu), 1924

Because the process of creating a mezzotint, using a tool known as a rocker, is extremely time-consuming and specialized, few twentieth century artists have favoured this method of printmaking. But although some of the effects of mezzotint can be mimicked in etching by use of a roulette and by mastery of aquatint, the mezzotint remains the most moody and mysterious of all printmaking techniques. Mario Avati is probably the most famous modern exponent of the process, but there are others. I've already posted about Georges Gorvel's atmospheric mezzotints of Paris under aerial bombardment in WWI. In a future post I will explore the work of two contemporary artists who favour the mezzotint over other intaglio methods, Michel Mathonnat and Michel Estèbe.


Jane Librizzi said...

When I look at these images, it seems that Drouart excelled at the decorative more than the'natural'. The reeds, water, and dappled trees in 'Hermaphrodite et Salcis' are more riveting than the human figures. The same, as between the pheasants and the farmers.

Neil said...

Jane, I think I rather agree with you - the human figures are very stylised and rather lacking in a sense of natural movement. I do very much like the mezzotint in particular, for its overall feel as much as anything.

Roxana said...

i adore the 'Hermaphrodite et Salcis', one of the most captivating images i have seen recently... it makes me dream of such photos, and then dream again...

Neil said...

Roxana - the merging of black into white and back again, female into male, night into day, all these things in Hermaphrodite et Salcis make me think of your beautiful mystical photographs.