The Artist's Hand: The Prints of Mauricio Lasansky
In 1943, with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation, Lasansky came to the United States. His fellowship allowed him to work with Stanley William Hayter at Atélier 17, then located in New York. At Atélier 17, Lasansky worked side by side with such Abstract Expressionists as Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock, and with such European emigré artists as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, and the Chilean-born Surrealist Matta. Great intellectual ferment was generated among this group. They worked their copper plates around one large table questioning and observing each other in a true spirit of cooperation and discovery. The support of Lasansky's fellowship also provided him with the resources to use copper, the most sensitive intaglio materials, in place of less expensive zinc. The new degree of directness and technical resolution reflected the fresh ideas, new materials, and sense of freedom that he found in New York. While there, Lasansky was also a welcome visitor to the print room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Francis H. Taylor, the director of the Metropolitan who championed his work, remarked "It took an 'Indian' from South America to have the perseverance and guts to look at every print in the Museum." At the Met Lasansky discovered original prints by Mantegna, Durer, and Rembrandt. He also saw at first-hand the prints of Picasso.
The intensity of his encounter with Picasso's prints led to Lasansky's bravura engraving Doma (Horse Breaker) of 1944. Doma was Lasansky's tribute to Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was brutally murdered in 1936 by Franco's troops. For Lasansky and many Latin Americans, Lorca's courage was a symbol of resistance. In Lasansky's print the violent combat between the two figures a man and a hybrid of a man and horse recalls the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In Doma, however, Theseus, the youthful spirit of Greece, becomes a tormented headless figure representing Spain under seige. The monstrous hybrid, like the Minotaur in the classical myth, is a symbol of unbridled forces. The print thus depicts not only the conflict between reason and passion, but the tension between a free Spain and the uncontrollable violence of Franco's militia. The intensity of the wrestling combat in Doma matches the intensity of Lasansky's hand in the physical creation of the print. It is engraved, a technique in which the image is incised directly into the metal with an extremely sharp tool called a burin, the most difficult of all printmaking vocabularies to master. The dynamic power is Doma results from expressive marks of the burin and the resistance of that tool to the copperplate. Lasansky's masterful control over the hard edges of his engraved line enabled him to extend his visual language to include an ambiguity of merging forms within the twisting figures in Doma.
Sol Y Luna (Sun and Moon), an intaglio from 1945, was Lasansky's last graphic created in New York. It reveals the impact of his experience there on both his forms and iconography. Sol Y Luna shows Hayter's emphasis on Surrealism's discovery of automatic drawing as a way of unleashing the unconscious. In Lasansky's print, the curving female figure with spiked, macelike breasts confronts two angular stallions. Surrounded by light, the female figure represents the sun, whereas the horses, shrouded in darkness, are the moon. This arrangement inverts the usual symbolic order, but in the oldest of cultures, such as those of Africa, the first man is represented as the moon. Whether or not this interpretation of myth was at the forefront of Lasansky's mind, Sol Y Luna, like Doma, investigates the confrontation of opposites a major theme in all of Lasansky's work.
Sol Y Luna demonstrates Lasansky's inventive use of intaglio. In this complex process the positive lines that are printed are incised into the surface area of the plate, either by the etching process or direct line engraving. When the plate is printed in a cylinder press under a great deal of pressure, the paper is forced down into the incised lines to pick up the ink. Intaglio may be one technique, such as etching, or it may be mixed techniques, such as aquatint, drypoint, soft-ground, and engraving. Lasansky revived the various techniques which he saw at the Metropolitan Print Room, best exemplified in the prints of Goya and Rembrandt who used many means to alter their plates. Like Rembrandt, Lasansky reworked his plates and experimented with wiping, so that no two proofs were exactly alike.
When asked to organize a graphic arts program at the University of Iowa in 1945, Lasansky did not hesitate. For Lasansky, Iowa City, a bucolic spot in the heart of the Midwest, represented the quintessential America, the ideal spot to work and raise a family. Lasansky taught continuously throughout his adult life. As a teacher, he had an uncanny knack for determining just what each student needed to hear, whether it be encouragement or a harsh criticism. Lasansky respected those who came to study with him as artists, fledglings perhaps, but artists nonetheless.
At Iowa Lasansky continued making prints three or four times larger than the previously acceptable size of eight by ten inches. To force the issue of size he enlisted his best students to submit oversized works to major print exhibitions. At first these works were rejected by the print establishment, but the message got through and size restrictions of this type were eventually abolished. Lasansky's combination of monumental scale and innovative technical investigations created intaglio prints which were no longer reproductions of paintings made by skilled technicians, but powerful works of art in their own right.
Dachua, an intaglio of 1946, was one of Lasansky's first large-scale graphics created at Iowa. The dark image does not speak of Midwestern surroundings. He has never been attracted to recording literal landscapes; Dachau extends the iconography Lasansky was developing in New York. He continued to explore the richness of automatic drawing. He looked to Mantegna for direct use of burin engraving and Goya for a graphic model of the cruelty and oppression of war. The horror of the Holocaust in Europe became an important subject in Lasansky's work of the mid-1940's. Dachau, titled after one of the most horrifying of the Nazi concentration camps, shows that Lasansky had absorbed lessons provided by Goya's Los Desastres de le Guerra (The Disasters of War) of 1810-12. Both artists created foreboding forms that barely merge from the surrounding darkness.
For Dachau, he painstakingly worked over, gouged, and scraped raw the copper plate. The plate has been bitten by acid and stopped out at so many levels that, like Doma, the violence of its creation parallels the power of its imagery. The white areas of the print vibrate with intensity. Lasansky cut out areas of the plate itself to insure that the whites left in certain parts of Dachau's composition were unsullied by the barely discernible plate tone. The surface of the copper is extremely textural and tactile, so much so that one senses Lasansky resuscitated his earlier sculptural background to create the plate for this edition of prints. Lasansky himself said: "All I care about is the image and trying to find it. Most of the time it is very elusive an image that I can only find through the print. Whether I am stupid or not, I like to find things, I like to sweat. It's somewhere between the back of the plate and the front. I need to go through all of the problems to find it."
With the four prints in the series For An Eye An Eye of 1946-48, Lasansky continues to examine the theme of the Holocaust. Here the message is communicated not through abstraction, but with the narrative power of a Greek tragedy. With each successive print, like a new scene, a fuller Chorus of voices joins in. Each print in the series begins with the same composition, with figural prototypes paying homage to Picasso. By Plate IV, the violence and bestiality have escalated to a frenzied pitch. The shallow space, the extreme crowding of the picture plane, and the theatrical gestures of the figures create the nightmarish quality of these prints. The theme of this series is the dehumanization of war, and its title, For An Eye An Eye, comes in spirit from the Babylonian King Hammurabi's retaliatory and primitive code of law. Lasansky's source material was the unearthening of the atrocities of the Third Reich, and For An Eye An Eye remains a powerful warning that human beings must curb the destructiveness of aggressive behavior.
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