Etching and States of Decay

I went to the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery a couple of weeks ago (as did Mike, the day before yesterday) – it was pretty packed, but with some patience it was possible to spend quite a while rooted in front of various late masterpieces.

Interspersed among the paintings were many drawings, etchings and drypoints, the latter two in particular making fascinating viewing in their various states of degradation.

The process of printing an etching, where plate and paper are compressed together, rapidly degrades the image on the plate, which is as much a function of raised burrs as it is of incision, and a very limited number of prints can therefore be taken. At the point where the image is too degraded for further printing, the artist has the option to refresh the image, sharpening lines, raising burrs, and so on; for Rembrandt this stage seems often to have been the most interesting, allowing him to alter entirely the character of the print. Thus there were several illustrative series in the exhibition of various states of the same plate.

Portrait of Johannes Lutma, 1656 - First and Second States of Four; Fitzwilliam Museum

Portrait of Johannes Lutma, 1656 – First and Second States of Four; Fitzwilliam Museum

Many of these versions, as it happens, were drawn from the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and coincidentally there is an exhibition of etchings by Jake and Dinos Chapman and by Francisco Goya just finishing at the Fitzwilliam, in various states. Both the Chapmans’ and Goya’s series are entitled Disasters of War, and the Chapman brothers’ series of 83 etchings is presented in three of its versions – black on white, white on black, and printed on a child’s colouring book. Various of Goya’s originals are also on display.

Rembrandt: The Late Works finishes this weekend, 18th January. Some tickets still available. Fatal Consequences: The Chapman Brothers and Goya’s Disasters of War is on until 8th February. Entrance is free.

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