An Artistic Life
A great deal has been written about Mauricio Lasansky over the last fifty years. But this coverage does not, necessarily, adequately do justice to his singular achievements as an individual, artist, and teacher. To do so, we must spend time with Lasansky's powerful images, and embrace them not only as icons of the times, but also as poignant expressions of an individual's search for truth. Similarly, we must acknowledge our debt to Emilia Barragan Lasansky, for her contributions are an integral part of his work.
Today, Mauricio Lasansky's art is internationally recognized for its technical virtuosity and humanism. He has created over 260 prints and since the mid-1940s, has taught hundreds of students at the University of Iowa. So vigorous was Lasansky in this mission, that by September 1962, Time magazine called him "the nation's most influential printmaker," and his university studio "the printmaking capital of the United States." This workshop and its many students are a critical part of Lasansky's legacy. At the same time he has received five Guggenheim Fellowships, more than ever granted one individual; is represented in more than 140 public collections; has been the subject of more than 200 one-person exhibitions; and is the recipient of six honorary degrees. Finally, his role in the revitalization of intaglio printmaking after the second World War provides the historical context for his work.
Lasansky's affiliation for several years with Stanley William Hayter's (1901-1988) Atelier 17 was a critical influence. The tremendous vitality of this environment was reflected in the new sense of energy and movement in his work. The effect was not unlike the way in which the remarkable Joseph Hecht (1891-1951) ignited Hayter's interest in non-representational line engraving and its technical and expressive potential. Hayter's workshop emphasized the "automatic" and experimentational use of line and engraving to express space, movement and form in a new way. Today Hecht remains little known; however, he was an important intermediary who carried the traditional work of Martin Schangauer (c. 1430-91) and Andrea Mantagna (1431-1506) to the avant garde orientation so readily embraced by Hayter's Atelier 17 artists. However, Hayter's constant emphasis on the purity of an expressive line stands in sharp contrast to the social and emotional quality of his work.
The respect for human dignity shown by Goya and Velasquez was a poignant precedent for Lasansky. In a 1970s interview, Lasansky commented, 'I love Velasquez for what Goya is not... he never got involved with the observer. He was always involved with the model. He had such respect for human dignity that all his skills as an artist were on the surface. He glorified man. He made the little dwarf the most moving thing, it tears your heart out." However, in 1961 the artist commented, "But my great teacher was the Depression. There were lots of ugly things then." The artist's subsequent imagery never abandoned the human form as the basis of his drama. The characters in his major works are presented as players on the stage.
One of Lasansky's crowning achievements was The Nazi Drawings completed between 1961 and 1966 and first exhibited in 1967 at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Alan Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., commented:
For Lasansky, this was both an artistic watershed and an emotional catharsis, during which he turned his major creative energies away from the print to give physical embodiment to his seething reaction against the Nazi holocaust. He saw the unleashing of bestiality in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s as a brutal attack on man's dignity, and felt it carried the potential seeds of man's destruction.
Elements of his earlier prints reappear in The Nazi Drawings, but transformed into powerful visual equivalents for the perpetrators and victims of the tragedy as well as the paralyzed bystanders.
The emotional intensity of these drawings was similarly expressed by the artist's series of eight prints from 1975-79 entitled Kaddish, providing the cover of this publication. At about the same time, Lasansky created Quetzalcoatl, consisting of 54 plates, a tremendous technical accomplishment. However, as the artist himself stated, "Technique is no more than a good vocabulary, not an end in itself." Instead, what really matters is the human element of his work. The artist has further commented: "I think the universe is concentrated in a human being... A picture is like people an accumulation of different moments at one time."
Lasansky is also well known for his self-portraits and the tender, intimate works depicting his wife and six children. Throughout, Lasansky's work represents the artist self-described as an individual who firmly believes in people, and who depicts them suffering life's horrors and exalting its joys. In his own words, "But what is more sacred than life?"
The Lasansky legacy will continue to enrich the lives of many individuals. In 1989, he, Emilia and their family, with J. Carter Brown, Director of the National Gallery, dedicated a series of permanent Lasansky galleries in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. In doing so, the artist has shared his vision in perpetuity with the citizens of Iowa and ensured through his work "History will know the truth of today."
Reprinted from Expressions XIV (Des Moines, IA).
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