Mauricio Lasansky and Intaglio Printmaking
Mauricio Lasansky is one of the very few modern artists who have limited their work almost exclusively to the graphic media. As a student he worked with various media, including painting and sculpture, but already by the age of nineteen he began to concentrate on printmaking at the Superior School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the city of his birth. At the age of twenty-two, Lasansky was asked to direct the Free School of Fine arts in Cordoba, where he avidly pursued his interest in printmaking. Although he had achieved recognition and prominence as a young man, Lasansky did not become complacent. When he was offered a Guggenheim Fellowship to study printmaking in New York in 1943, he welcomed the opportunity to broaden his experience.
Lasansky arrived in New York at a time when printmaking in the United States was undergoing a major redirection and revitalization. During the early 1940s, artists fresh from the WPA graphic art projects were eager to continue their work in printmaking. Serigraphy, a technique developed on one of the federal art projects, was emerging as an imaginative new method of color printing. Louis Schanker and Werner Drewes were re-evaluating and expanding the possibilities of the color woodcut. At Stanley William Hayter's workshop in New York, artists were exploring new ways of working in the medium of intaglio printmaking.
Prior to the 1940s, the standards by which prints were made and judged in the United States were conceived largely in terms of established artistic tradition. Although many excellent prints were created, most of them were small in size, black and white, linear in conception, and technically conservative. Modern stylistic developments introduced into the United States at the famous Armory Show of 1913 had little effect on American printmakers. Some artists emulated the Old Masters, but most printmakers remained within the strong American tradition of realism, modified at times with selected elements of abstraction, expressionism, or surrealism. The exhibition of prints was controlled largely by conservative print societies, such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Society of American Etchers. They valued precise draughtsmanship and technical virtuosity more highly than innovation.
The upheaval and discontent spawned by the Depression contributed to a democratization of art in the 1930s. The WPA Federal Art Projects brought art to public places, and printmaking was seen as a means of bringing multiple original works of art into the possession of large numbers of people. Despite the proliferation of prints that resulted, few artists challenged the stylistic and technical limitations that had been traditionally ascribed to printmaking. It was not until the 1940s that artists working in the various print media discovered that color, texture, abstraction, and large scale were not necessarily alien to printmaking. During World War II and the following years, the emphasis in American printmaking shifted to stylistic and technical experimentation.
An important factor in this revitalization of American printmaking was the major influx of European emigré artists to the United States just prior to and during the Second World War. Printmaking had a much longer and more dynamic tradition in Europe. Some of the greatest European artists have shown a strong interest in printmaking throughout their careers; the prints of Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya are as handsome and powerful as their paintings. Well-known modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst, were also accomplished printmakers. Among the emigrés to the United States were such artists as Marc Chagall, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, George Grosz, and Jacques Lipchitz, who made prints as well as paintings and sculpture. Their involvement with the graphic media gave new stature to prints in the estimation of many Americans who has previously considered prints to be minor works of art. Some of the emigré artists worked at Atelier 17, the printmaking workshop that Hayter had transplanted from Paris to New York in 1940. Mauricio Lasansky was invited by Hayter to join the workshop within months after his arrival in the United States, and for almost two years he became part of this international vanguard of artists whose work radically altered the course of intaglio printmaking in America.
The opportunity to work side by side with prominent European artists and the emphasis placed on technical experimentation at Hayter's workshop were of great importance to Lasansky. Although he had been an accomplished printmaker before he came to New York, the physical isolation of Argentina from the centers of modern art had limited his creative development. Much of the art to which he had access had a strongly provincial or academic flavor. Very few Old Master prints were available for study in Argentina. He was able to see some contemporary European and American art in the few serious art publications that came to Argentina from abroad, but he had little opportunity to view it first-hand. In such a print as Figura, one sees Lasansky's early desire to experiment as early as 1938. His abstract fragmentation of space, the surreal treatment of the figure, and his use of an irregularly cut plate indicate that he was already pursuing new means of expression. However, it was not until he came to New York that he found the stimulation and encouragement to develop these interests further.
Upon his arrival in New York, Lasansky undertook an exhaustive study of all the prints in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. In particular, Lasansky admired the direct engraving technique of Mantegna and the powerful social content of Goya's prints. He was also interested in the prints of the German Expressionists such as Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Among his contemporaries, the work of Picasso and Hayter had perhaps the greatest impact on him. While many of Lasansky's Argentine prints were characterized by a poetic, dream-like atmosphere, his prints made in New York have a greater emotional intensity, both in his choice of subject matter and his manner of expression. The image of the horse in such prints as Doma and Caballos en Celo is strongly reminiscent of Picasso's iconography of the Guernica period. The vigorous linear abstractions in Sol y Luna and Time in Space recall Hayter's emphasis on automatic drawing as a means of creating a composition. Nonetheless, Lasansky assimilated these influences, but without sacrificing his individuality.
Concurrently with this marked change in style and expression, Lasansky enlarged his repertoire of printmaking techniques. Although he had made lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, and drypoints in Argentina, none of these media seemed adequate to express the energy and movement central to his new imagery. Burin engraving, which he first used extensively at Atelier 17, seemed better suited to his objective. Until that time, drypoint had been his favored medium. He appreciated the directness of drypoint and became quite accomplished in the medium, but the delicacy and refinement inherent in this technique did not seem appropriate for expressing the energy and emotion he wished to convey. Compare, for example, his drypoint self-portrait of 1943 to his engraved self-portrait of 1945. The soft, atmospheric nuances and elegance of the earlier work are rejected in favor of the forceful, bristling lines of the later one. While a drypoint needle scratches the surface of the plate, a burin can dig deeply into the plate to create a bold, dark, raised line when printed. In Doma, the great physical resistance of the plate to Lasansky's burin seems to have increased the dynamic energy of his line. The very character of the lines expresses the violence and brutality of two figures in direct combat.
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