Skip to main content

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.


  1. Great opening and content. Thanks for sharing.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.

A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…