Etching, the process of using corrosive substances to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create designs on metal, later to be copied on paper, has a history that dates back to the Middle Ages. It hit its peak popularity in the 17th century, with such masters as Rembrandt and Castiglione creating prints still famous today. Gradually, however, it lost favor as a medium of high art. But in the 1840s and ’50s, a number of artists produced landscape etchings that tried to recapture some of the spirit of the old master prints. The Smart Museum's new exhibit, The “Writing” of Modern Life: The Etching Revival in France, Britain, and the U.S., 1850--1940, tells the story of this brief efflorescence of etching.
An Oscar Wilde quote on a wall of the exhibit spells out its main argument: “Among different modes of expression in the visual arts, etching approaches most closely to the literary.” “Writing” makes the case that unlike the laborious craft of engraving, etching promises the ease and informality of sketching. It was therefore, like writing, an ideal medium with which to express the individuality of the artist, which was crucial in the Romantic period of the 19th century.
Even though the exhibition features more than 50 works from different times and places and in diverse styles, the fluidity of the method is manifest in each and every one of them. The sections of the exhibit, beginning with “Beyond Pastoral” and ending with “Toward an Urban Modern,” separate the older, more picturesque depictions of hazy nature from modern etchings characterized by sharper lines and clearer depictions. A wealth of information is provided the viewer to increase her in-depth understanding of the exhibit as well as the method of etching.
The superstar of the collection is the father of the British Etching Revival, Francis Seymour Haden. His work still stands as a high point in the history of etching. One of Haden's greatest works, “The Breaking Up of the Agamemnon” is an essential part of the collection. The fine treatment of the landscape and beautifully controlled line arrangement that he is famous for are on display here, especially in the portrayal of the majestic ship in the foreground. Another piece, “Hands Etching—O Laborum,” is a wonderful example of Haden’s leadership in this revival process. The image of the working hands, along with the title, emphasizes etching’s revival as a handiwork medium.
Norman Ackroyd’s mysterious hazy landscape, “Shropshire,” the first image that one sees in the exhibit, is another work worth noticing. One of the most important etchers currently active, Ackroyd beautifully depicts the Shropshire hills as seen through the ruins of a church. His excellent use of dark and light evokes a certain unexpected eeriness.
Also notable are Short’s violent storms, West’s harsh winters, McBey’s impressionistic atmospheric style, and many others. In addition, the exhibit features works from artists that are more widely known for their painting résumés such as Jean-François Millet and Haden’s brother-in-law, James Whistler.
If you’re looking for a day of fluorescent colors, don’t even try The “Writing” of Modern Life. But if you’re interested in discovering the unique beauty of etching, visit the Smart Museum one of these days.