Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 24, 2020

For a history on etching, visit the Met in New York

By BINYAMIN NOVETSKY | December 5, 2019

Over Thanksgiving break, I had the privilege of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Unfortunately, their collection of European painting from the years 1200-1800 are mostly not on display due to ongoing renovations. There was, however, a new and different exhibit I had the opportunity to see, and it was absolutely fascinating. 

The exhibit was on the history of etching across Europe. Opposed to painting, which is a relatively straightforward artistic process all things considered, etching is far more complicated. According to the exhibit, “etching was first used as a printmaking technique in the mid-1490’s by the Augsburg printmaker and armor decorator Daniel Hopfer.” The interaction between drawing and etching pictures onto armor allowed artists to begin using the etching technique to help them widely disseminate their works. 

Printmaking had already revolutionized the way people were able to spread information on paper, so replacing words with art on paper proved another huge step in the history of this medium.

Etching, described by the museum as a process “which involves drawing freely on a wax-covered metal plate,” simplified the previous model of printing art known as engraving, a far more difficult and taxing process. Etching, therefore became a far more democratic and accessible form of artistic expression. Though some of these pieces were colored after being printed, most of them are made with black ink on white paper.

The exhibition explored the first 60 or so years of the history of etching in Europe. There were a lot of remarkable pieces on display, including some of the actual metal plates that had been carved or drawn upon and then used to print etchings. 

The highlight of the exhibit was, without question, the works of Albrecht Dürer. The Met had six different pieces from the German artist, and each of them were exceptional. His Abduction on a Unicorn from 1516 was fierce, capturing the drama of the ridiculous scene heightened by the intense use of light and shadow effects created by the lines. The unicorn itself was incredible, almost grotesque in its features with a horn that looked more like a scythe. 

Dürer is known for his portrayals of hair (I would recommend you to view his self-portrait from 1500 for some glorious locks), and his etchings didn’t disappoint on that front. Even when constrained to just using black ink, the wild and flowing hair of his characters seems to go all over the piece of art, almost blending into the parallel lines he used to make the sky. Despite the colorless medium, the detail brings the characters and subjects to life.

Another piece of his was The Desperate Man from 1515. The events in this etching are very hard to understand, although scholars have hypothesized the scene to be anything from a bath, to a dying man or even a festival celebrating the Roman god Saturn. Unlike the rest of Dürer’s works, this piece has no explicitly recorded date, nor does it have Dürer’s signature monogram. The intense muscular figures in the etching seem to be in a state of deep remorse or grief, and as a viewer you can’t help but be pulled into the work. 

As great as some of the other artists on display were, it was impossible not to gravitate back to Dürer’s etchings. It just felt like nobody on display could ever really duplicate the things Dürer managed to do. 

The Renaissance of Etching was a worthwhile experience overall without question, and I highly recommend it. That being said, if I had walked in and the only things in the entire three-room were those six etchings of Dürer, I would’ve been fully satisfied. With Dürer, even if I didn’t fully understand what was being depicted, I was enthralled by his remarkable mastery of the unique technique. 

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