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ART REVIEW : 'Etching' Captures a Lost Moment

April 05, 1996|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

A virtually lost chunk of art history is rescued in the Huntington's exhibition "The Etching Revival in Britain." The movement started in the 1880s and continued through 1929 when the Great Depression wrecked the print market along with everything else. Its fruits are demonstrated in some 50 prints by about 20 artists. About the only name recognizable to the average gallery browser will be James McNeill Whistler. Real fans of English art will know Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland. Everybody else on view constitutes a group who prove once again that not all gifted artists are famous artists.

The occasion of the show is suggested by its subtitle, "Selections From the Russel I. Kully Collection." Kully, a local connoisseur and Huntington Overseer, recently donated his precious trove of 100 such prints to the Huntington's art gallery. Works on view were thoughtfully arranged by Edward J. Nygren, director of the San Marino repository's art collections.

The art of etching developed in the 16th century. It's a method of engraving achieved by drawing with a sharp tool that removes an acid-resistant substance covering a copper plate. Finished, the plate is immersed in acid, which bites line into copper. The plate is then cleaned, inked and printed. The result has special beauty that comes from a wonderful sensuous texture intrinsic to the method. The point is made by the juxtaposition of a preparatory drawing and final print of Malcolm Osborne's portrait "Mrs. Heberden." The print has a sonorous richness absent from the drawing.

Artists as renowned as Albrecht Durer and Francisco Goya made great etchings, but by the 19th century this art was mostly reduced to a method of reproducing tight, fussy illustrations for children's books. Whistler got his back up about this. He and his brother-in-law, Sir Francis Seymour Haden, set out to revive etching for the fine arts. Rather lovably, Haden was a doctor who started etching as a method of sharpening his eye for surgery. His river-scape "On the Test" manages to be both precise and romantic. Whistler's "The Lime Burner" is exceptionally sharp for an artist famous for being a tonalist.

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A good bit of this art seems to reflect the days when "amateur" was not a dirty word but a designation for someone with the talent and leisure to do more than one thing well. Sir David Young Cameron's 1902 rendition of "The Doge's Palace" recalls an updated version of the 18th century gentlemanly Grand Tour, as does Sir Muirhead Bone's "A Manhattan Excavation" and Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson's "Le Pont Neuf."

Painterly and spontaneous relative to the etching immediately preceding it, the revivalist work was conservative compared to the modernist revolution that came to surround it. There are echoes of Degas-style Impressionism in some works, but about the most consciously radical style reflected here is in an image like Nevinson's vaguely Cubistic 1927 portrait "Edith Sitwell."

It's particularly interesting, however, to note how the modern sensibility seemed to affect this work as if unbidden. Perhaps the most striking print here is Gerald Leslie Brockhurst's "Adolescence." It shows a nubile nude girl contemplating herself in the mirror of her modest dresser. The timeless Vanitas subject matter is given a contemporary tone by its obsessive rendering and psychological frankness.

During World War I many artists were drafted into official capacity as war artists. Bone's "Piccadilly Circus" takes on an ominous 20th century twist from searchlights scanning the sky for enemy zeppelins. Percy Smith's awkwardly titled "Death Intoxicated From Dance of Death" depicts a British soldier about to bayonet a German guard. It has an unsettling Expressionist anti-war character, similar to the work of the German Otto Dix.

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After the war the revivalist etchers, apparently weary of lethal reality, retreated into a sort of nostalgic pastoralism. They were attracted to the prints of the 19th century visionary Samuel Palmer and joined him in making images of a mythic rustic England full of thatched cottages and sturdy Gothic churches.

What they missed in such Palmer works as "The Bellman" was a haunted, ominous subjectivity that did more to prefigure Surrealism than escape into an imagined past. One of these artists, Frederick Landseer Maur Griggs, acted as his own best critic. He said his sentimental-Gothic "The Almonry" was too much like a Christmas card. Graham Sutherland, a pastoralist as a youth, finally got Palmer's real point and became one of England's leading Expressionist painters.

Taken together England's etching revival understood that the past's greatest talent is its capacity to illuminate the present.

* The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Garden, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, through June 2, closed Mondays, (818) 405-2141.

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