Etching out a living

A lost art on display

Swietlan N. Kraczyna
December 14, 2006

Still considered somewhat of ‘an outsider’ when compared to other more publicized art forms, the art of etching has always been surrounded by an air of mystery. Throughout its veiled history, it has often been seen as a ‘misplaced’ technique, searching for its role among the pillars of art, alchemy and artisanship. While ‘noble’ art forms such as sculpture and painting could lead to hard-won fame and glory, creative etchings often served solely to win over women. While a modern Italian may invite a lovely woman to come and see his ‘butterfly collection,’ Renaissance chaps would court a lady by offering the chance to come and see his ‘etchings.’

Etching was an esoteric art form appreciated by few and far-between, and if the pretty damsel accepted the offer, you knew that she was willing to come into your luxurious abode, with little interest in art or butterflies. Yet, etching does have a very noble birth and prestigious history. Capable of gathering together great artists throughout the centuries, this art form was born here in Florence at the height of the Renaissance. Il pianeta Mercurio created by Maestro dei Pianeti in 1460 is the earliest known example of an engraving, the predecessor of etching. This technique was further developed in the 1470s and used by the likes of Antonio del Pollaiolo to create his famous La Battaglia dei Nudi. Twenty years later, Andrea Mantegna engraved his noteworthy Baccanale con Tino and many of his techniques spread north to inspire the works of Martin Schongauer, Luca di Leida, Hans Holbein, and Luca Cronach. Artist Albrecht Dùrer graced the scene by the 16th century, creating some of the most important etchings of his era.

The advent of Mannerism, and a regained interest in alchemy and other occult activities, prompted many artists to experiment with new methods and ideas designed to speed up the creative process and eliminate the kinks of the craft. Parmigianino, for example, who worked in Bologna in 1530, employed a corrosive agent called acquaforte—or ‘strong water.’ Parmigian-ino would cover a copper-plate with an acid resist made up of beeswax and asphaltum. He’d draw the line to be engraved into the acid resist covering, exposing the metal. Then he’d sub-merge the whole plate into the acquaforte. The acid would corrode wherever the metal was ex-posed, leaving an etched grove, and the etching process was born.

Inking and printing is carried out in much the same manner as with engraving, but the result is decidedly more fluid. Both techniques use many of the same hand joints used when drawing, but in engraving, lines are made with a tool that gauges out the metal with a forward action, thus favoring straight lines. To engrave a curved line, one must pivot the plate with one hand against the tool, while the other hand pushes the engraving tool against the plate. Etching allowed greater freedom of creating lines, as if one were drawing with a pen.

Dùrer (16th century), Rembrandt (17th century), and Goya (18th century) all became champions of this etching technique, producing breath-taking masterpieces cited in innumerable books on art history. Piranese, another 18th-century artist, carved his imaginary ‘Carceri’ on the page of posterity and dedicated himself to creating evocative views of the Roman ruins. In 1879-89, Whistler traveled to Venice to reproduce lovely views the Serenissima. Mary Cassat, who lived in Paris during the late 19th century, also produced a magnificent series of color etchings. Picasso, throughout his long life in the 20th century, dedicated much of his time to etchings, from his 1904 Absinthe Drinkers to his late erotic prints in the 1970s. Morandi with his poetic still lifes and Chuck Close with his gigantic portraits are both certainly worthy of mention.

But etching is not only an art of the past, and Florence is currently hosting two exhibits by con-temporary women artists that prove it. Until Dec. 20, two Tuscan contemporary print makers are on show at Eurocentres’ JJJ Gallery in Piazza Santo Spirito, 9. Melania Vaiani, whose multi-plate color etching represent allegorical figures and bull-fighting, uses the full pallet of primary colors to give necessary drama to her work. Silvia Papucci from Pisa presents her series, which high-lights the tension between different ‘temperatures’ or shades of blue. The juxtaposition between ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ blues, cobalt and cyan, create the visual excitement and movement of waves. In a second noteworthy exhibit, visitors have until Jan. 27 to witness the encounter of print-making and poetry at the Marino Marini museum in ‘Zincati,’ an explosive joint exhibit by Mexican printmaker Particia Alejandra Cordoba and Italian poetess Serena Naldini. Cordoba’s 13 multi-plate color prints including etchings, dry-points and monotypes are exhibited together with 10 poems, in an ode to visual vitality and youthful zest.

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