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Prints With/Out Pressure

Atelier 17 and the Ruthven Todd Portfolio

In 1927 Stanley William Hayter (1901–1988) established a printmaking workshop in his studio in Paris, with the intention of making his equipment and his developing knowledge of printmaking techniques available to interested artists. By the time he moved the studio to 17, rue Campagne-Première, from which address Atelier 17 derived its name, it had become a hub for numerous artists of diverse nationalities, including many of the foremost painters and sculptors of the day, who shared an enthusiasm for learning and experimenting with printmaking. In 1940, with the approach of German troops, Hayter abandoned the workshop and moved with his wife, Helen Phillips, to New York, where he reopened Atelier 17. The new location attracted many of the former associates, who had also immigrated to New York, as well as an increasing number of local artists.

In 1947 Ruthven Todd (1914–1978), an English poet and William Blake scholar who had met many Surrealist artists in Paris in the 1930s, initiated a project to ascertain Blake’s method for producing his handwritten poems as relief-printed etchings. Etching is a technique whereby an image is engraved with acid onto a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. An acid-resistant varnish is used to protect the areas that the artist doesn’t wish to etch, while any area left uncovered will be bitten by the acid. When the plate is printed as intaglio, the etched areas are filled with ink. When the plate is printed as relief, only the raised surface is inked, while the etched parts remain untouched. In both cases, the resulting print is a mirror image of what appears on the plate.

Todd and Hayter visited Lessing J. Rosenwald’s print collection at his home, Alverthorpe, in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and borrowed a fragment of one of Blake’s etched plates. On this plate, the words of a handwritten poem stood out in relief, having been protected with varnish while the areas surrounding the text had been eroded with acid. After printing the plate, Todd and Hayter concluded that the writing appeared so fluid and natural that Blake must have used a method that allowed him to write on another surface in normal left-to-right script, and then transfer it onto the plate. (This theory has subsequently been disputed, with the argument that Blake, having been trained since the age of fifteen as an engraver of script, would have found it second-nature to write in reverse and, through his own experiments, had developed a recipe for fluid varnish with which to do so.) Todd and Hayter, with the help of Joan Miró, devised a method whereby Todd wrote with a pen dipped in varnish on a sheet of paper that had been treated with gum arabic. He then placed the paper face down on a heated copper plate, and ran the two through an etching press. After the paper had been soaked off with warm water, the words remained on the copper plate, needing only slight retouching with varnish. In the margins Miró then drew his own designs with a brush dipped in the same varnish. The back of the plate was protected with more varnish, and the plate was submerged in a bath of diluted nitric acid for up to fifteen hours, allowing the areas unprotected by varnish to be bitten away by the acid to a depth of about two millimeters. The plate was then removed from the acid and the varnish cleaned off to reveal raised letters and images. At this point another plate was coated with ink, and the incised plate pressed face down against it, thus transferring the ink. The inked incised plate was then printed onto paper using an ordinary etching press.

Todd and Hayter involved a number of Atelier 17 artists in this project, including Miró, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and the American artists exhibited here. Todd wrote a poem for each artist in his own hand, and the artists drew their designs in the margins of their plates. Although the portfolio was never published, the project was an important and influential example of the printmaking experimentation that occurred at Atelier 17.

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