The passion of graphic arts
Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been attracted by the graphic arts.
And that attraction is as strong today as it ever was. The reasons why I feel drawn to those intractable techniques are many and various.
At the top of the list has to be the narrative content of the graphic artists whose work I admire. I am thinking here of Dürer, Bruegel, Duvet, Rembrandt, the engravings of the Fontainebleau School and the countless others who testified to the age in which they lived and who did so with a wealth of imagination.
The second reason is the craftsmanship of the graphic arts –the technique- the desire to master the material in such a way that it tells the story I want to tell.
Graphic materials have always exerted an almost magical attraction on me. Moreover, I find them very beautiful.
The mysterious power that emanates from an etching press, the softness of the felts, the opaque viscosity of the printing inks, the gleaming and sweet-smelling oils and balsams, the acrid scents of the acids, the incomparable forms of the tools –polished and perfected over the ages- blackened and coated with a patina by intensive use; that was the world I wanted to master and make my own. I still do.
The connection those tools have given me with the artists of previous centuries has also given me a greater insight into their bygone world. The more I mastered the technique, the more I got to know them and the more I admired them. They nourished a part of me that was always latently present: the desire to reveal the mysterious and to grasp the intangible (that which is born of the discipline and the restraints of the medium: white and black, laborious greys and sparingly applied colours).
Graphic art is my window on the world. In every attitude, facial expression, tree or leaf, man or animal, I see a picture, a story begging to be etched, engraved or sketched. The possibility of letting others share in my world via my prints is an additional aspect I have neglected for years.
Although I work a lot and have long been active, few people have seen my work.
There are several reasons for this. In the very beginning, when I was still busy conquering a world, I used to exhibit regularly. I showed the works I thought might appeal to people. I tended to follow trends.
Later I began to get more of a hold on the images that were roaming about in my head. Later still I learnt how to capture those images in technique and material. But then I became afraid to reveal them. They had become too personal. I felt they were too individual to be worth bothering other people with. Who would be interested in some loner’s concoctions? I also felt nobody would fully appreciate them.
Not good for a person such haughtiness.
The prints have meanwhile piled up, I have gradually become older, and time has finally come to reveal my work.
My images have a right to an independent life; they have grown strong enough to face the world. I am no longer central. I no longer speak through them; they speak for themselves.
It is difficult for me to write or talk about my work, there are some things of which I must be wary: I have to take care not to be too technical, that is of little interest to most people; nor is philosophy all that interesting, I am a lousy philosopher.
I can however tell a story with every print. Usually that story has nothing, or at least nothing immediate, to do with what can be seen in the print. And yet it is not difficult to write about my work.
I live in my work. It is always warm where I live, summer. Not the proper season in which everything is still sharp and the pollen is not yet flying around. No. It is high summer: the leaves on the trees are still green, but already a little tattered and untidy; the people are languid, the sun casts heavy shadows and the animals lie panting or dozing in the shade. The blinds are drawn against the heath. Inside it is cool, but murky, mysterious. Time stands still. The white light eats into everything. Soon, when evening falls, we will sit outside and tell stories, every sound, muffled or full, dissolving into the dark night air. Torches will be lit and from times long gone they’ll return, all those characters I seem to have always known: the kings and queens, princes and paupers, wise men and fools, the lovers and the damned, those to whom power is a burden and those who seek it, the gamblers and the losers, those who think they have won and those who really win (but they are few and far between). Gradually they take shape in the darkness. They have the faces of people I know. I am happy and sad, exultant and anguished, to see them again. They stamped my childhood, made me who I am. They live unfettered by time and space, all mixed up together. They return to me regularly and I don’t kwow how and why.
That is where I live and that is what I report on. That is what my work is about and about nothing else.
And when the morning comes it brings another of those endless summer days that can last a lifetime.
The techniques I use are somewhat varied: burin engraving, etching, mezzotint for intaglio printing, wood cut and wood engraving for relief printing, all sorts of digital techniques and combinations of the all above. I am no purist! As far as I am concerned, it is all about finding the right atmosphere to suit the content. And I try to be as sparing as possible in my use of the means.
Visual language is one of the many languages man has acquired during his brief existence on this planet. It has the great virtue of requiring no explanation.
When red flows into yellow then as far as I am concerned nothing exceptional has happened. It might just as well be an accident, a couple of knocked over pots of paint. If the way in which they flow together is such that it suggests all sorts of figures and familiar symbols to me, then there is still nothing exceptional going on; perhaps fortune-tellers could use it to predict the future. But if I become inspired to intervene in that merging, to expand on what chance has brought about, then something exceptional usually does take place: a story is born.
I love stories. I always have. To me stories are the healing balm on the little –and sometimes not so little- wounds of our collisions with life. It doesn’t much matter whether they are recounted or sketched, painted or sung, danced or filmed, as long as they are there. Any language is good. Every story is worth the telling.
As far as that is concerned I am not left hungry, because the world is teeming with stories: old and new, stories that have become myths, fairy tales,…
There are images that have to be told. There are also images beyond the telling, images born of that tension; in my case, images forged in fantasy. Everything is language. Language enables us to transcend our limited individuality and to arrive at a great common memory, which goes much further and is much more universal than any product of individual imagination.
My wish to have my work placed on a website is a request for communication. I want as many people as possible to see and comment on my images. I have to break out of the isolation in which I have worked for so many years. Any commercial offshoots would be a welcome bonus, but they are not my primary concern. I think the new media that have come our way are an excellent vehicle for this boundary breaking communication.
I also believe that the Internet can bring about a renaissance of engraving and, since engraving is my passion, that is my paramount dream: a new future for the graphic arts.
(English translation: Stephen Smith)