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Wagner in Etchings

In March I revealed two things that most people tend to keep to themselves for fear of being cast out of polite society: a) I only listen to opera; b) I belatedly began liking some of Wagner's operas.

After five months of listening to virtually nothing but Wagner, and even seeing some of the music starting to seep into my studio work, I suddenly remember a series of etchings by English artist Christopher Le Brun that I saw more than 20 years ago.

Le Brun was a passionate lover of Wagner's music, and in 1994 he made a set of eight photogravure etchings titled Wagner. The names of the individual works -- Fafner, Siegfried, Brunnhilde -- indicate that his inspiration was the Ring cycle.

Christopher Le Brun, The Valkyrie, etching and aquatint, 1994

Back in 1998, I didn't like Wagner's music and hardly knew anything about it, so I looked at these works purely from an aesthetic standpoint. As I consider them now having listened to more of Wagner's music, what strikes me is that these etchings still don't require anything more than a basic familiarity with Wagner's work. That is, if you are vaguely aware that the Ring cycle deals with gods and heroes and giants and dragons and a magic ring, you will still be able to gather two things about Le Brun's Wagner cycle:

  • Le Brun's work has hints of mythic and epic figures, but they always seem to simultaneously emerge from a complex mark-making process that also submerges them;
  • They are technical tour de forces of the etching medium.

Photogravure is an old nineteenth century technique for transferring a photographic negative to a copper plate and then etching it. Very often I find the technique boring to look at, as I do most printmaking processes that stay too close to photographic sources. In the case of Le Brun's etchings, there is so much working and reworking of aquatint, spitbite, burnishing, and stepped etching that any purely photographic origin becomes overlaid by the repeated use of etching techniques (also, I suspect that his photographic source may just have been a negative of one of his paintings).

Christopher Le Brun, Fafner, etching and aquatint, 1994

I love the dramatic contrasts of dark and light areas in Fafner, and the use of spitbite in the distant clouds. Whether you're new to etching or an old hand like me, these works pay repeated looking.

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