The secret souls of objects
March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
As with Frans Pannekoek, I’ve been meaning to write about Erik Desmazières for some time. In a way they make a neat pair, and not only because their preferred medium is etching. It’s more of a pairing of opposites: where Pannekoek’s work draws much of its magic from flaws and happy accidents, Desmazières’s is all iron precision and control. There are no mistakes or chance occurrences in his world.
I can’t recall exactly when I first encountered his work, but I do know it was in an auction catalogue, and I remember my surprise at finding in the ‘contemporary prints’ section prints that were so wilfully, defiantly old-fashioned. I don’t just mean because they’re figurative. There’s an obvious pride in craft and skill honed over decades that harkens back to another age. There’s also Desmazières’s markedly backward-looking (and I don’t mean that as an insult in this context) choice of subject matter. His early work is dominated by fantastical, often nightmarish landscapes and cityscapes that earn frequent comparisons with the work of Escher and Piranesi, but to my mind his most interesting prints are inspired by the cabinets of curiosities – the ancestors of the modern museum – that first emerged in the sixteenth century.
The objects in these printed Wunderkammers seem to have been petrified or transformed into sculptures (a reverse Pygmalion effect?) by the passage of time, or by Desmazières’s etching needle. But the longer I’ve looked at these strange images, the more paradoxically alive the objects appear.
Comparing Desmazières to Piranesi and Escher is straightforward, but there’s another, far more obscure artist with whom his work seems to have affinities – the Belgian Symbolist Xavier Mellery. Mellery wrote passionately about l’âme des choses (the souls of things) and his eerie, foreboding drawings of ordinary interiors (including his own house) give form to his words.
Whether artfully arranged in a cabinet of curiosity or scattered haphazardly in the interior of an antique shop or a printer’s atelier, I think it’s fair to say that the objects in Desmazières’s world have souls, too.