Virtue in imperfection
February 18, 2014 § 3 Comments
Three years ago I was in Paris for the Salon du Dessin, and as many of the museums and exhibition venues cleverly time shows of drawings and prints to coincide with the Salon, I went off in search of as many as I could find. My route took me to the Fondation Custodia, in whose basement galleries was an exhibition of etchings by a Dutch artist I’d never come across before: Frans Pannekoek.
My initial amusement at his surname (pannekoek is, as you’ll probably have guessed, Dutch for pancake) was soon replaced by a sense of quiet enchantment. He works on a small scale, with a fine, nervous line and a tremendous sensitivity both to the power of the reserve (the areas of paper left bare of ink) and to finely modulated blacks. There’s a sense of desolation, of the uncanny or the macabre rooted both his subject matter and his treatment of it – desolate landscapes dwarfed by skies that, even on such a diminutive scale, feel infinite; abandoned ships and gliders aloft over unpopulated hills; dead birds and live insects. (I’ll spare you images of the latter in case you’re sensitive, but if you’re not, they’re worth seeking out.)
Pannekoek has been working quietly but, it seems, prolifically since the 1960s. He’s mostly self-taught. He seems to have schooled himself by looking intensely at the work of his predecessors. His most obvious influence seems to be Rembrandt (indeed the exhibition I saw in Paris originated at the Rembrandthuis) but the longer I looked, the more I saw traces of more recent etchers – Whistler, Bresdin, Redon, Bracquemond.
I’ve been intending to write about Frans Pannekoek’s prints ever since I started this blog. (It looks like the old saw about the road to hell and good intentions is true in this case. Although I’ve always maintained that the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but by the same guys who pave all the roads in Chicago…) But in some ways I’m glad I waited this long – for one, because it meant that I had a chance to try my own hand at etching. And now, looking at Pannekoek’s etchings with the benefit of practical experience, what strikes me is how cleverly he turns imperfections and accidents in his plates, the etching process, even the inking and printing to his advantage.
The scratches in a too-zealously cleaned plate become swirling storm clouds.
Foul biting (areas where the acid has eaten into the plate through cracks in the ground) becomes rain, hail, a distant flock of birds.
Even the jagged edges of a damaged plate can become a startling echo to the ruined buildings they enclose.
I know now from personal experience that such mistakes can either ruin a print or be the happy accident that makes it unique and oddly perfect. Pannekoek has a marvellous way of finding virtue in imperfection.