“gravures à vivre” invitation card by the autor

[Excepts of a lecture translated from French]


Make haste slowly; and without losing courage, Go back again to your work twenty times .The Poetic Art, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

Briefing of my lecture presented Thursday, March 18, 2010, to the members and guests of l’ Association Culturelle Francophone in New York with the support of l’ Organization International de  la Francophonie to the United Nations, 801 2nd Ave in New York. This lecture given in French on relief engraving and printmaking included visual samples and images projection.

Saint Georges and the dragon by Albercht Durer [1471-1528

As we all know [or at least tend to believe]  the origin of engraving goes back to a distant past, very difficult to identify in time as it seems that it may have come out from a need to communicate thoughts, knowledge and to develop some form of esthetic. But we are mistaken into thinking it only belong to a fixed room in the dusty attic of the past. Quite in the contrary, engraving remains very much alive and present in our everyday world.

It is well commonly established to associate relief engraving with the famous artist Albrecht Dürer [1471-1528], considered rightly so, the greatest German artist of the Renaissance. Indeed, he brought this art form to a unique quality level in the history of relief engraving, both from a technical point of view [engraving the wood itself] as well as esthetically [the strength of his thought, specially with his masterly interpretation of the Bible and the history of Jesus Christ]. Dürer’s work offers us a difficult match and accompanied it with a very unique and personal style, to the point of becoming very daunting for all those generations to come who want to try this same unique art form. Somehow one could accuse him of mischievously appropriating it to himself, a king Attila ‘behind which the [engraving] would not be able to grow back ‘… at least if we obviously only chose to remain in the context of  ‘Western engravings’.

four female nudes from Albercht Durer 1471-1528

The Consequences that carry these ancient relief engraved works, or at least those who managed to escape the destruction of time and win the favor [or a curse] to be [re-]discovered and preserved, are deeper than it is commonly recognize from experts and the public at large alike. They could be compared to shock waves that propagate to infinity. Their repercussions are part of our everyday world,  the mere traces of our footsteps on a sandy beach, on the snow or mud … the in-prints of our shoes that water solidifies during a harsh winter in temporary ice will reveal our presence and  by the same occasion the meaning of our own existence …

Relief engraving is not limited to ‘carving’ wood, but found most commonly in stone, metal, glass, bone, ivory and clay works, and of course in the culinary arts as well. Engravings simply exists as such, and were not always conceived for the sole purpose of being transferred on to a fancy piece of paper or ground [ to become famous and priceless prints]. Its presence is visible in great range of applications, which, however, are not necessarily less valuable or useful. This may tend to explain why, very unfairly, one invites more easily a person to visit ‘ his/her collection of prints [ printed relief engravings]’ instead of his/her collection of manholes casted iron plates; proving once more that not only love but lack of imagination as well makes us equally blind.

To engrave is also the desire [aware or not] to leave our own [passing by] mark, or some hope to leave one. We find that undeniable desire through the dazzling truth of rending homage to a dear missing/loved person thanks to the recording of chisel marks on marble slabs dating from 1750, a need from the guts to make it immortal. These same slabs used from time to time as picnics tables to either students at New York University or Japanese tourists incline or not for fast foods. Conceived originally to serve as gravestones, one can still clearly read names, surnames and date accompanied by the word ‘vault’. These plates, sprayed at the random on the gardens [once the cemetery] of St Mark’s Church [East Village, New York, corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue] do not fail to surprise us; 250 years of history are looking at us, an amazing number if we compared it with the average age of our life expectancy!

A hard material [tempered steel] indents into a softer material [marble] on an unequal struggle [in the image of our existence], the result will be such that at the end of the battle the ‘weaker ‘material will prevail, radiant from skills and beauty. Mean while that graceless ‘strong’ hard tool will fall into oblivion like the human who has served as an intermediary to complete the action… surprising?

pencil rubbing of a David’s cross with inscriptions from an engraved stone on the second avenue side walk, New York

On the other side of the same second avenue, just at the spot where use to stand the famous Second Avenue Deli, one finds a series of gray square engraved stones surrounded by brass edged. They are embedded in the mortar, which defined the sidewalk; beaten up by all kinds of weather and the abrasion caused by thousands of people passing by. A series of interconnected David’s crosses and inscribed names are mocking destruction. One can easily transfer these motifs and inscriptions by rubbing with a pencil on a sheet of paper laid on top of it,  making them very readable. Conflicting parties interests on the fate of this famous Deli eventually ended on the completely destruction of it until it got replaced by nothing more unimaginative and innovative then a bank. For inexplicable reasons, the sidewalk which contains these engraved stones go spared, escaping miraculously somehow to the infectious consequences generated once more by conflicting related human affairs.

Con Edison casted iron plate New York

However even if relief engravings [more accurately the resulting prints coming from it]  would continue to be associated invariably to the brightness of a Dürer or connect to a loophole of a possible believe on solving the problem related to our own mortality, this does not exclude it from considering its primary form: humble, simple, utilitarian, and [or] often named banal.

Still on the same second avenue, more plates are laying down, this time set into the filthiest of tar, this dark semi sticky material heated by the sun and harmful exhaust gases, covered with loose greasy lunch papers, crashed/trashed apples, drunks vomits and lovely dogs yellowish urine. Casted iron plates that once use to come from India more recently from China which despite their irreplaceable virtues of resisting the heaviest vehicles are regarded as no interest to be looked at, like if our sight where to be reserve to the MOMA[ Museum of Modern Art in NY] or the MET [Metropolitan Museum in NY]!  This plates may be accompanied by decorative elements, logos, companies names whose corporations performing services which vital functions keep the city running [electricity Con Edison, the New York sewer system …] Some of these plates come from wooden relief engraved prototypes, which were used as models to execute molds for metal in fusion to be poured into, which made this iron plates.

Further down again on  second avenue, we find other samples of relief engravings such as:  buildings numbers, doctor, dentist, lawyer plates; hot dogs, cloth, alcohol selling signs… cars  identification plates or brand names…

Michaelmas 1935, linocut by Sybil Andrews

In a peculiar way, from our birth until our death, relief engravings remains alive within us, present, from our wrinkles to our fingertips. So unique and personal that it has been ‘misappropriated’ for the use of… identity records [or digital databases] used by all governments all around the world. Known under the name finger prints! Obviously, not our fingers but rather our relief engraved skin [all natural] located under our entire hands and feet, which the image is being kept on storage at then other ‘Museum’ [also not label as such] the’ Data Base of Identification ‘one [revealed by ink on paper, or more recently by scanner]. The relief engravings which answers perfectly to the ’emigratus’ office, unless it guaranties ‘my own self ‘ cannot be possibly mistaken for being an other self! Thus we let our mark on the scene of a crime or foolishly walking in the fresh cement of a sidewalk in the process of repair,  in both cases, relief engravings [tip of our fingers and soles of our shoes] reveal/mirror flawless images of ourselves and [or] of our numerous actions or misdeeds .

Relief Engravings to overcome our prejudices, our lack of observation, our ignorance and to end with the chronic disease of bad faith.

When the nowadays creators, all over, are likely looking to acquire the latest forms of technology as a medium of visual expression, why insist on calling upon the use of this ancient technique? The principle of engraving itself did not age. Certainly and unfortunately it is a clear fact that anything relating to the idea of ‘old’ or ‘aged’ is still taboo and banished by our contemporaries [Western world] which refuse to receive lessons solidly tested by time. They prefer to be lulled by the daily propaganda, connecting to the latest Ipod available in the market which promises to imitate a semblance of visual 3-dimensional world. We are constantly invited to drug ourselves to ‘visual trends’ and ‘new technology properties’. Outside flashy eye-catching wining over attending our own inner ‘cultural garden’ [Voltaire] . We are bound by an almost civic duty to new consumption. Let all baby bottle at the single mindless/stupid entertainment, secure loophole to our daily miseries and our becoming chronicle frustrations.

. First, very few indeed are those which had been able to see one original Dürer’s engraving [wooden engraved plate jealously guarded in some undisclosed museum safe].

. Secondly, a few more have seen the original prints printed from his woodcuts.

. Thirdly, far way more had the opportunity to discover reproductions of his prints [in magazines, catalogs, postcards, posters …]

. Fourthly, for a virtually unlimited audience, across the web and using the background of a computer screen, mobile phone , etc. …!

. Fifth, reaching even a Mars audience , the last new device will be here tomorrow …  take my word!

Yahei Kamaru parrying a spear thrust, woodcut by Horibe

Are we very far from our engraved wooden  block? Obviously not! Only the intermediate developer is and will continue to be in motion [ nature, and men being part it, cannot stay still]. I am referring to the modes of transcriptions, or ‘translations’. In any case we have the ‘acting’ document [ created by acting tools]. We have action and on other end we have  forms of disseminations  [of this actions]. For example, the tiny cover of a parisian subway map printed in two millions copies in no way prevents the original founding block to be relevant, as this image cover can very well be created from a relief engraving. The virtues of simplification [not simplistic]  of this technique can ensure a much better quality of image ‘readability’ and reproduction, especially when elements of quick mechanism of overproduction, multitasking and low end paper have such a negative impact to the overall result.

Other point worth mentioning, in order to achieve a minimum of decent results, relief printing requires a certain amount of working discipline  and concentration.  The necessary counterweight for imageries using relentless mockery, derision, easy caricature inviting only for deeper mediocre quality and shoddy job, neglected or simply lacking craftsmanship. Endless gross jokes, characters with big heads, big “cute” eyes [pastiches of  French Poulbeau, now a day visible even amount Japanese trend], representing  humans and animals with excessive use of  enlarged or reduced sizes of noses, ears, body parts [you name it] become increasingly the ‘plat du jour‘ of our daily visual environment in which we are insidiously infected from; like over process packaged foods, striped away from any form of vital substances.

Our human activities might still very well accommodate some ‘engravers without borders‘ not to operate into the re-gilding the logo of the ‘arts’ but  rather to rescue a sick art and silent patients in a dignifying manner. Especially while dealing with thorny issues  involving all of us in fundamental and critical ways: war, poverty,  starvation, disease, despair … We can obviously continue to draw ‘funny heads’ the sure road for pushing us deeper into the ditch  avoiding to represent and express compassion, care, concern…helping out.

If we would demand from an ‘artist’ the same quality and integrity that we do demand an artisan baker while making us an ‘humble’ bread may be than, after we recover all our senses we could reconsider the main need/function of the art: a food for the soul and the artist will regain its honorable and primary function of  being an artisan again.

Iraq war, double page Sunday New York Times, March 2008, a linocut by the autor

From day birth under the storm of a destabilizing surrounding life style increasingly needy for ‘quick fixes’ and ‘short returns’, I could only find relief from an abandoned set of tools,  yet strong ones, having prove themselves through time. In an urge of mastering my own fire, moving away from a destructive spiral, making my job a vocation [a calling] and finally tending towards a sense of proportion and balance. Presently I’m still digging my humble furrow.

I thank the Recreation Committee of the UN Staff, the members of the Comity of the Association Culturelle Francophone, their friends and guests for their generous and warm welcome as well as for giving me the opportunity to escape from my own studio allowing me of sharing ideas and anecdotes related my profession as a painter, engraver, printmaker.  I am also indebted to the International Organization of La Francophonie in New York for generously placing its premises at my disposal.

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