It was Waldo Frank who first mentioned the name of Mauricio Lasansky to me. Lasansky, he said, was a brilliant young printmaker in Argentina who was about to come to the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In due course I met him and his work, and I have been following his astounding career ever since.
Mauricio Lasansky is a dedicateda passionately dedicatedartist. His passion is graphic art. He is constantly fighting for the acceptance of printmaking as a major creative art form. This mission has two aspects: his own substantial contribution to the contemporary graphic field, and his role as a teacher, training and stimulating others toward the same high endeavor.
Lasansky, born in Buenos Aires in 1914, showed early inclination for the arts. At first he wanted to be a musicianand music was to continue to be an influencebut after a brief interval he turned to art and started taking lessons at the age of thirteen. He must have been born, he said, with printer's ink in his veins: both his father and his uncle were printers. His father, who had been born in Poland, spent several years in Philadelphia, printing paper money at the United States Mint, before settling permanently in Buenos Aires. Mauricio was a precocious student: at the age of sixteen he won his first honorable mention for sculpture at the Mutulidad Fine Arts Exhibition. The following year he won a prize at the same institution. In 1933 he entered the Superior School of Fine Arts, taking courses in painting, sculpture, and engraving. In the same year he was already making creditable prints such as Velorio. This was executed in a rather unusual medium, relief etching on zinc, called zincographía in Argentina.
Blake employed it to produce his Prophetic Books, and Posada used it in Mexico for his popular prints. Acid was applied to eat away all those portions of a copper or zinc plate which did not delineate the image; and then the plate was inked and printed as a wood cut. Lasansky says that the process was also used in Poland and that he learned it from his father.
In 1936, at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed Director of the Free Fine Arts School in Córdoba. He continued to exhibit actively both before and after that time, winning many prizes and having one-man shows all over Argentina. In 1943 a retrospective exhibition of his graphic work was held at the Gallería Muller in Buenos Aires. The twenty-eight prints shown there sum up Lasansky's Argentine phase.
The cultural climate of Argentina at that time had, one gathers, a provincial flavor. There was no native graphic tradition to build on, as there was, for example, in Mexico. The avant-garde influences came from France or Spain, and were predominantly literary, since books travel farther and faster than paintings or other works of art. The sophistication achieved by the artists tended to be rootless and unduly precious, expressing itself in poetic symbolism and elegant conceit. One critic, Julio Vanso, spoke of "plastic metaphors," and the very phrase implies a fundamentally literary conception translated into visual terms.
Lasansky's prints were typical of such a milieu, yet stood apart by reason of his technical virtuosity and his experimental approach. Although he experimented with etching, relief etching, and linoleum cut, the bulk of his work was executed in drypoint. They display an extraordinary technical facility; he can suggest the most delicate tones and nuances by this primarily linear medium. He experimented with expressionism, as it were, in Velorio and Cena, possibly with surrealism in Figura, with a pastoral tradition in Changos y Burros, but his most consistent accomplishment appeared in the drypoints, Maternidad, El Presagio and numerous others. They are romantic and poetic compositions of extreme sensibility and refinement.
The year 1943 marked a decisive step in his career. He came to the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship. It is significant that one of the first things he did upon his arrival in New York was to visit the print room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and study the old masters. He felt the need to assimilate the ancient graphic tradition, actual examples of which he had not been able to find in Argentina. He was to spend many months in the print room studying the prints of the past. As Francis Taylor, the Director of the Metropolitan Museums, later jocosely remarked: "It took an 'Indian' from South America to have the perseverance and guts to look at every print in the Museum." There were over one hundred and fifty thousand of them!
Concurrently, Lasausky was trying out modern modes of graphic expression in Hayter's Atelier 17. Here he was introduced to burin engraving, soft ground textures by impress, gouging, graining with carborundums, and the like. Above all he discovered Picasso in the original. He was bowled over by the great Spaniard for a period, and translated his imagery into a bravura burin technique in such plates as Doma and Sol y Luna. He pointed out to use that although the imagery was similar to Picasso's, the burin line was very much his own. It should also be pointed out that Picasso's symbolism would come more naturally to Lasansky as a Latin-American than it would to an Anglo-Ameriean. In due course he digested Picasso's influence and made it part of his own amalgam, as he did also with the intaglio techniques of Atelier 17.
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