or browse databases: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

You are here

Search

Research

Services

Libraries & Spaces

About

Information for:

You are here

A Printmaker’s Journey: The Graphic Art of Jörg Schmeisser

Charles Marvin Fairchild Memorial Gallery
October 21, 1997
December 31, 1997

Introduction

The Fairchild Memorial Gallery at Georgetown University is pleased to present this exhibition of 49 intaglio prints by Jörg Schmeisser, the German-born master printmaker and Head of Printmaking at the Australian National University in Canberra. The exhibition is arranged under four section headings.

Ladakh

Seven prints from the artist’s visit to the remote Ladakh region in the Himalayas of Northern India plus a copy of the book recording that visit which he co-authored with the photographer Jaroslav Poncar.

Europe

Nine prints of European cityscapes, including two “diary prints,” and a large engraving of Venice printed in color from Perspex [acrylic] plates.

East Asia

Twenty prints, of which 10 are of Japanese and other East Asian subject matter, including one “diary print,” plus 10 prints from the artist’s didactic portfolio, “For Example: Lord Howe Island,” in which he presents examples of nine methods of intaglio printmaking, together with an explanatory text for each.

Diary and Nature

Thirteen prints of Australian subject matter, including two “diary prints,” and small studies of buds and shells, some in color, and a plate of banksia, the dried seed pods of certain indigenous Australian evergreen trees and bushes, which are found in some of these prints.

Chronology

A listing of the important dates and events in the development of Schmeisser's artistic and teaching career.

Schmeisser's Diary Prints

by Eric Denker

In the second, third, and fourth sections of this exhibition, the viewer is presented six examples of one of the artist's most important innovations in printmaking, his "diary prints." First attempted in the 1970's, they have now become a significant element of some of his best works. Some of these deal with travel, such as his "Diary and Hamburg" and "Visit to Krangen" found in the second section. Others deal with images of nature, such as in "Diary and shells" and "Diary and Port Campbell Coast" in the fourth section.

I would like to dwell on the first of these, "Diary and Hamburg." Here the artist presents us with a carefully delineated skyline of the city which occupies the central area of the print. Surrounding this dominant motif he adds vignettes drawn from related episodes of his trip, not organized as bands of architecture, but dispersed around the borders of the print. The upper register contains Asian architecture, Italian towers, rooftops in Prague, and a precisely rendered leaf among other diverse elements. A torrent of images flows through the lower center, including references to Buddha, to the German artist Lucas Cranach, and to various natural and organic forms.

These vignettes mix with a delightfully characteristic Schmeisser device - a diary rendered in a delicate yet legible style. The diary is in German, beginning along the left border, and continuing on the right third of the print.

The diary has a number of different functions. The text tracks the artist's thoughts and movements during the trip, as the etching is fermenting in his mind. Sometimes the written record is related to the visual imagery, offering information that is useful to the viewer. At other times the text conveys thoughts and observations that are unrelated to the print's subject.

To the artist, the diary's most important function is visual: as a compositional element that weaves the diverse components of the image into a unified ensemble. Schmeisser's writing and the combination of text and image is reminiscent of the illustrated notebooks of Leonardo, the codices that contain the Renaissance master's ideas and sketches on science and art.

In the work of both artists, Renaissance and modern, the handwritten text serves as a visual foil for the drawings. Although the notes are interesting, a reading knowledge of Leonardo's Italian, or Schmeisser's German is not necessary for the viewer's enjoyment of this skillfully composed design. But unlike Leonardo, Schmeisser had to write his text in mirror image on the printing plate so that the viewer of the resulting print might be able to read it.

Taking a closer look at the exhibition's "Diary and Hamburg," even those of us who do not read German can begin to realize what a tour de force of technical and artistic virtuosity we have before us in the creation of this splendid example of a diary print.

Nine Examples of Intaglio

The artist's text accompanying his 1984 didactic portfolio, "For Example: Lord Howe Island," in which he explains each of the nine ways used in making the portfolio's intaglio prints.

(a portfolio)

Nine examples of Intaglio 1984

Edition 40 and AP 1/X - X/X, paper size 25 x 24.5 cm

in a portfolio with title and text pages

 Metal plates are normally used for intaglio printing. These may he copper, zinc, steel, magnesium or other metal, but cardboard, wood or plastic have recently also been employed. Various lines, dots, or other indentations are etched, scratched or engraved into the plates to create a design. Printing ink is forced into the indentations. Superfluous ink is first removed with gauze and then usually the palm of the hand, so that only a thin film of ink, or no ink at all, is left on the surface of the plate. The printing plate is then placed upon a solid steel plate: the bed of the etching press. A sheet of paper which has been moistened to make it malleable is laid upon the etching plate and then several woollen or felt blankets are placed over the paper. The solid steel bed, the etching plate, the paper and the blankets are run under high pressure between the two large cylinders of the etching press forcing the paper into the indentations where it picks up the ink. Thus the design is transferred from the plate onto the paper. The composition on the plate will print as a mirror image, so the design must be drawn in reverse of the desired final result.

The plate can be worked in different ways:

(a) using only mechanical means (e.g. engraving, mezzotint, drypoint), or

(b) using etching processes where mordants like ferrochlorides, nitric or other acids are used to create indentations in the plates. (e.g. line etching, relief etching, aquatint, softground, photo etching etc.) In most modern intaglio prints, a combination of these and other techniques will be found.

1) Engraving. The engraving is the oldest form of intaglio printing. It was developed in the early 15th century and was strongly influenced by and connected with the craft of the gold and silversmiths.

The instrument used to create the image is called a burin or graver. It is a steel rod about 10 cm long; its point is diamond shaped and the tip sharpened to an angle of 45 degrees. The graver is pushed over the plate at a low angle so that its tip bites sharply into the metal and a shaving is lifted clear. Most lines start as fine cuts, grow in thickness and taper to a fine point. This is a typical feature of the engraved line and is quite different from etched or drypoint lines.

2) Drypoint. As in engraving, lines are incised into a metal plate by purely mechanical action. Unlike the graver, which removes the unwanted metal as a fine shaving, the drypoint needle pushes the metal to the side creating a furrow. Burrs are formed on either side of the drypoint line. Ink will adhere to the fragile edges of the burr so that the lines in the print will appear slightly blurred and have the rich texture that is typical of the drypoint. The earliest drypoints were done around the middle of the 15th century by anonymous masters - one of them was the 'Master of the House-book'.

3) Mezzotint. For the preparation of a mezzotint plate a rocker is used. The rocker is a steel tool with a slightly rounded cutting edge which is serrated with fine teeth. The surface of the plate is roughened all over with this tool so that a print made from it would appear uniformly black. The image is worked up from the rough surface with a scraper and a burnisher to create areas that will hold progressively less ink. Those areas which are slightly scraped or polished will retain some ink for printing. The more highly polished parts of the plate will hold little or no ink at all. Thus a whole variety of half tones can he achieved, from a velvety black, through the most subtle grey tone to a brilliant white where the paper is left unmarked. This technique was developed by Ludwig von Siegen, and was most popular in the late 17th and 18th centuries as a means of reproducing paintings.

4) Line Etching. The metal plate is covered with an acid resistant ground. Etching grounds may consist of wax. pitch, mastic and asphalt. Lines are drawn into the hard ground with a steel needle exposing but not incising the metal beneath. When the plate is placed into an acid bath (e.g. diluted HNO3), shallow or deep lines will be etched. depending on the concentration and temperature of the mordant and the time that the plate is left in the acid. Lines that are etched sufficiently are stopped out with varnish. The plate may then he returned to the acid and those lines which are still open are etched more deeply. This process can be repeated many times. Then the ground is removed and the plate is inked and printed. The shallow lines will appear as fine grey lines on the paper, whereas the deep-etched lines will stand out in solid black. The etching process was first used on iron, mainly for decorating weapons and armour in the 15th century. Attempts to 'offset' or 'print' these decorative patterns can be seen as the forerunners of etching as a graphic art. Dürer etched on iron plates which were prone to rusting; soon copper became the most popular metal, continuing to be the most widely used to date.

5) Relief or 'Open Bite' Etching. Some areas of the plate are covered with ground and other areas are left exposed. The plate is placed into the acid bath and the mordant bites the open areas. Without removing the first drawn forms, new ones can be added and etched, creating the impressions of layers on the print. Ink will remain in the deeper parts of the plate, accumulating towards the edges of the bitten areas. This emphasises the relief character of the print.

6) Aquatint. The aquatint was developed to reproduce various values of grey similar to the tones in wash drawings and water colour. The invention of this technique is attributed to Jean Baptiste Le Prince, whose early works date from 1768.

7) Softground. In this etching technique a sticky and soft ground ('vernis mou') is used instead of hard ground. When a sheet of paper is placed on the plate and a pencil drawing is made on the paper, the softground will adhere to the back of the paper wherever pressure is applied. It will lift from the plate when the paper is carefully removed. The plate is then etched in the usual manner. The character of the printed line will be similar to the line drawn on the paper.

By using the softground it is also possible to reproduce a variety of textures. Textiles, leaves, grass and such like can he pressed into the softground where they will leave an impression which can he etched and printed.

8) Photoetching. The plate used for this process is covered with a light sensitive and acid resistant ground. A high contrast black and white film positive, or a pencil drawing on drafting film, is placed on the coated metal plate and then exposed to strong UV light. In the plate developer, those parts of the coating which were beneath the black areas of the film dissolve. However, the areas which were exposed to the UV light harden and remain as an acid resistant ground on the plate. The etching proceeds as normal: mordant bites the areas that are no longer covered with the ground (i.e. the (lark areas of the original). The light areas of the original are protected by the ground and will eventually print light.

   9) Colour Etching. From a large number of colour etching processes, only one is described here. A variety of colour tones can be achieved by using differently etched plates of the same size, inked in yellow, red and blue. The first plate (in this case yellow) is carefully registered and printed, but the paper is left in the press with the rim of the paper still under the top roller of the press, caught between the blankets and the bedplate. The yellow plate is removed, the second plate (red) is placed in exactly the same position as the first plate - and printed. The paper again remains in the press, the second plate is replaced by the third and last colour.

The first colour etchings were done by Jacob Christof Le Blon around 1725. He had studied Newton's colour theory and tried to apply it to printmaking with only limited success, but the principle of colour separation is basically the same as that employed today.

Checklist

A chronological listing of the prints in this exhibition.

1. Chestnut Bud for Keiko 1974
etching and aquatint
collection of the artist

2. Moon and Rain 1974
color etching
collection of the artist

3. Venice I 1976
etching
private collection

4. April Shell 1977
etching
Georgetown collection

 

 

5.Coloured Dolls 1977
etching, aquatint, drypoint
collection of the artist

 

 

6. Impatient Bud 1977
etching
collection of the artist

7. Diary and Shells 1978
color etching
private collection

8. Horyuji, Nara 1979
color etching
collection of the artist

9. Monkey (New Year's Card) 1980
etching and aquatint
collection of the artist

 

 

10. Rhodes, Greece 1981
etching
collection of the artist

11. Il Campo, Siena 1983
color etching (variant color proof)
private collection

12. Diary and Hamburg 1983
etching
Georgetown collection

13. Qin Figures from the Excavations in Xi'an 1984
color etching
collection of the artist

14. Lord Howe Island 1984
color etching
collection of the artist

15-24. For Example: Lord Howe Island 1984
(a portfolio)
9 examples of intaglio
Georgetown collection

25. Alchi, a Dream 1985
color etching
Georgetown collection

26. Phuktal 1985
color etching
collection of the artist

 

 

27. Chorten 1985
color etching
private collection

28. Tiksey in Ladakh 1985
color etching
private collection

29. Lhato and Chorten 1985
color etching
collection of the artist

30. Doorway 1985
color etching
collection of the artist

31. Mountain Near Zulidok 1985
color etching
collection of the artist

32. Diary and Port Campbell Coast 1988
color etching
private collection

33. Gent (Ghent) 1989
etching
private collection

 

 

34. Visit to Krangen 1991
color etching
Georgetown collection

35. Temple in a Pinegrove 1991
color etching
private collection

36. Crabclaw '92 1992
color etching
private collection

 

 

37. Shed Near Yangzhou 1993
color etching
private collection

38. Old Door and Wall 1993
color etching
private collection

39. Banksia and Gingkoleaf 1994
color etching
private collection

 

 

40. Venice Lionheads 1994
color etching (1st state)
private collection

41. Venice Lionheads 1994
color etching (artist's proof)
private collection

42. Crabclaw and Seaweed 1994
color etching
private collection

43. Distant Kiyomizu 1994
color etching
private collection

44. 4 Shells 1995
color etching
Georgetown collection

 

 

45. Venice 1995
3 color engravings from perspex
private collection

46. Banksia 1996
color etching and drypoint
collection of the artist

 

 

47. Diary and Gingkoleaf 1997
color etching
collection of the artist

48. Batemans Bay 94 Bird 1997
etching (trial state)
collection of the artist

49. Batemans Bay 94 Bird 1997
etching (edition proof)
collection of the artist

Acknowledgments: 

The exhibition is guest-curated by Eric Denker, Senior Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art and adjunct professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University. It is jointly sponsored by the Embassy of Australia, the Georgetown University Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies, and the Fairchild Gallery of the Georgetown University Library.