The Artist's Hand: The Prints of Mauricio Lasansky
The following essay appeared as the introduction to the exhibit catalogue for the Neuberger Museum, State University of New York at Purchase, Fall-Winter 1988-89.
. . . the phantasma was the bridge between the soul, prisoner of the body, and the exterior world (worlds). The phantasma is, once again, the mediator between the world of here and the world of there.
-- Octavio Paz
When I print, the fingerprints are mine.
-- Mauricio Lasansky
Mauricio Lasansky has worked for over fifty years almost entirely in the intaglio medium. Throughout his career, he has explored epic scenes of violence, and then countered them with prints of tender human emotion. It has been largely due to Lasansky's achievements that the model of an artist working exclusively in the print media has been legitimized. He has moved printmaking from the realm of mere reproduction, and redefined the nature of intaglio printmaking itself. Another of his major contributions to the field of graphics was to make prints equal in scale to monumental paintings. Finally, through his sympathetic teaching, he enabled a great many artists to find a language of their own.
On October 12, 1914, Mauricio Lasansky was born in Buenos Aires, a port city which attracted waves of European immigrants at the turn of the century. Lasansky's family, Jews from eastern Europe, was lured to the Argentine capital by the government's promise of prosperity. Before settling in Argentina in the early 1900's, Lasansky's family had emigrated to Philadelphia, where the artists father and uncle were engravers and printers of bank-notes at the United States Mint. Their commitment to their craft explains Lasansky's claim of having printer's ink in his veins.
As a teenager, Lasansky's first inclination was to become a musician. But a hearing loss, which turned out to be temporary, made him redirect his creative energies to the visual arts. Precocious at 16, he won an honorable mention for a sculpture in an exhibition of seasoned professionals. Three years later, in 1933, he entered the Superior School of Fine arts in Buenos Aires where he studied sculpture, painting, and printmaking.
For Latin American artists of the 1930s, the study of prints was limited to woodcuts which illustrated 16th- and 17th-century Bibles and prayer books brought to the continent by catholic missionaries eager to propagate their faith. These straightforward woodcuts provided Lasansky with a model for the creation of inexpensive works of art in keeping with his populist beliefs. His prints from the 1930s treat the themes of poverty and despair. Suicidas (Suicide) of 1935, like many of his earliest prints, is a zinc relief-etching, an unconventional technique developed by William Blake in the late 18th century which Lasansky learned from his father. In this technique, the negative areas of the plate are etched away and, like a woodcut, the raised surfaces are inked and printed. In Suicidas, young emaciated lovers who have taken their own lives lie drowned in a tidal pool. Sea foam encircles them and, like a serpent, coils back to the sea. The sidewinding quality of the water, which leads from the couple in the foreground to an expanse of sea in the background, evokes the archetypal snake which devours its tail. The universal serpent is a symbol of the cyclical nature of life and death, and a reminder that the sea is the primal element from which all men and women arise and return.
By 1936 Lasansky had become a very big fish in a pond that was soon to become turbulent. That year he was appointed director of the Free Fine Arts School of Cordoba, Argentina. Three years later he was promoted to the directorship of the Taller Manualidades in the same rural town. He married Emilia Barragan, the sister of a muralist with whom he had worked, and they started a family. There was great peace and joy in his personal life, but a sour mood had descended on the country. In 1939, Argentina witnessed the most fraudulent election in its history. By the mid-1940s, an unruly, right-wing nationalist movement paralleling the totalitarian governments in Europe arose in Argentina, headed by military strong-man Juan Peron.
Terrible as the 1940s were, the decade marked Lasansky's greatest artistic growth. In Auto Retrato (Self Portrait), a drypoint of zinc of 1943, Lasansky presents himself as a Renaissance prince, not as a humble artisan in a printer's apron. The antiquated and picturesque costume shows his desire to escape from the realities of the moment. The regal three-quarter pose gives expression to his strong personality and new sense of self-awareness. That same year, Auto Retrato was included in a retrospective of Lasansky's work in Buenos Aires, celebrating his achievements as Argentina's leading graphic artist. It was the last print Lasansky made before leaving the country. He has never returned.
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