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Place, space, and grace

Curator Mark Stocker on printmaker Louis Rosenberg and the etching revival


<P data-associrn="1473137"> <P>Louis Conrad Rosenberg (1890&#8211;1983) was an outstanding printmaker. He was also a qualified architect: this is evoked in the structures he depicts and how he depicts them. The status of this master of the etching revival was reflected in two beautiful books on his art, published in London (1929) and New York (1930). To paraphrase Andy Warhol, Rosenberg enjoyed 15 months of fame! Why, then, has the work of Rosenberg and his peers fallen into obscurity? What was the etching revival, and what caused its demise? </P> <P data-associrn="37791"> <P><STRONG>A brilliant beginning</STRONG></P> <P>Rosenberg had Swedish parentage and grew up in a goldmining camp in Galice, Oregon. His story shows how the ‘American dream’ could sometimes be a reality. After training in architects’ offices and studying architecture at the University of Oregon, he won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), graduating in 1914. </P> <P>At MIT he earned a legendary reputation as a draftsman and designer: ‘Examples of his work … were eagerly scanned by many who sought to learn the secret of his skill at composition and presentation of architectural design. Sincere flatterers all, they imitated his technique as closely as they might and every group of drawings … contained a goodly percentage of Rosenbergian touches.’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Star art students can make an impact like this in any time and place. Although their mediums and styles differ, Rosenberg’s impact compares to that of painter Shane Cotton at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts some 70 years later.</P> <P><STRONG>Level-headed, steady-handed</STRONG></P> <P>Rosenberg’s earliest surviving prints date from 1921, when he was on a University of Oregon travelling fellowship, which took him to Europe. Throughout his 25 years of active printmaking, a satisfyingly level-headed and steady-handed consistency is evident. Rosenberg’s prints represent the vision and technical accomplishments of an architect, a draftsman, and above all a printmaker. They are far removed from the primitivist expressionist woodcuts of his contemporaries Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, with their signature coarse gouges and jagged lines. Rosenberg does not bare his soul or tell stories. But when we look at Rosenberg’s prints showcased in the current <EM>Ng&#257; Toi</EM> | <EM>Arts Te Papa</EM> exhibition <EM>Louis Rosenberg: Etched into memory</EM>, all from his travels in the late 1920s, we sense the artist’s humility as he records, conveys, and even subtly rearranges the age-old edifices before him.</P> <P>There is a rightness about all of Rosenberg’s renditions of structures. He knows where and when to stop, never overworking the plate with unnecessary lines. Rosenberg knows his stones, bricks, and mortar; he knows his classical orders and stepped gothic gables; and he knows his civil engineering &#8211; what makes buildings stand up or crumble. While he appreciates the history and heritage of what he depicts, the result is neither clichéd tourist art nor dully illustrative. Sometimes it may seem a tad austere. </P> <P data-associrn="40198"><P data-associrn="42179"> <P><STRONG><EM>The Grand Canal, Venice </EM>and<EM> Ponte Fabricio, Rome</EM></STRONG></P> <P>In <EM>The Grand Canal, Venice</EM> (1927), a view from the Rialto Bridge, we might have expected a more wholehearted attempt at conveying light on water, as seen in Sidney Litten’s print <EM>Gondolas, Venice</EM> (1928). Yet Rosenberg’s drawing of this familiar panorama is beautifully spare. </P> <P data-associrn="36505"> <P><EM>Ponte Fabricio, Rome</EM> (1926) is more overtly atmospheric. Here Rosenberg depicts the arches and parapet of the Pons Fabricius, the bridge that has spanned the Tiber since 62 BCE. As artists have always done, Rosenberg cunningly manipulates reality: ‘With a vivid sense of actuality, we see the aged tower of San Bartolommeo brought, by the pictorial license of design, closer to the convent building, while the noble balance of sunshine and shadow lends a monumental character to the picture.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P></P> <P><STRONG>Technique: Scratching, biting, and going dry</STRONG></P> <P>Initially, etching dominated Rosenberg’s output, but from 1924 to 1925, after studying at the Royal College of Art in London, drypoint became his favoured mode. What do these printmaking techniques involve, and how do they differ?</P> <P>Etching and drypoint are both intaglio processes &#8211; the ink is held in the grooves and hollows made on the plate.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> An etching is created by drawing with a stylus through an acid-resistant ground. The plate is immersed in corroding acid, accentuating the grooves and pits, prior to printing. It’s amazing that such refined-looking art comes about through scratching and biting! </P> <P data-associrn="38891"> <P>Drypoint may be likened to drawing with a pen, but without ink (hence the name), or etching without immersing the plate into acid. Lines are scratched into the plate with a sharp-pointed instrument and are as strong or as delicate as the pressure exerted. The technique is sometimes used to enhance the composition of freshly etched plates. The drypoint line has a ‘taut, almost excited quality, which is not as fluid as an etched line.’<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Until the late 19th century, pure drypoints were uncommon; the raised burr of the printing surface was fragile, and only a few fine impressions were possible. However, the technological breakthrough of electrolytically steel-faced plate reinforcement made a greater number of copies per edition economically viable (150 was a common number for Rosenberg). </P> <P>The terms ‘etching’ and ‘drypoint’ are often conflated. ‘Etching’ is the generic and more familiar term, reflecting its long historical dominance, and ‘drypoint’ is frequently subsumed within it. Therefore, despite the importance of drypoint in Rosenberg’s practice from the mid-1920s, the books published on him were in the ‘Masters of Etching’ and ‘American Etchers’ series.</P> <P><STRONG>The etching revival: A potted history</STRONG></P> <P>Although Rosenberg appears deceptively styleless, we must relate his art works, activities, and achievements to a bigger cultural and historical picture. He represents the Indian summer of the etching revival, sometimes called ‘the renaissance of etching’. No published scholarly overview has adequately addressed this cultural phenomenon, which massively impacted on the art world between about 1880 and 1930. <EM>The Times</EM> of London referred to etching as ‘art in one of its highest forms … Every day seems to bring forth new etchings.’<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> How did this come about?</P> <P>Following the inspirational achievements of Rembrandt, etching had gradually declined between the Dutch master’s death (1669) and the mid-19th century. Illustrations and reproductions dominated the etching field. This changed radically thanks to the three ‘Charleses’ of French printmaking: the romantic and eccentric architectural visionary Charles Meryon, complemented by the Barbizon School realists Charles Jacque and Charles-François Daubigny. Their impact soon crossed the Channel to England, thanks to Alphonse Legros, James Whistler, and Francis Seymour Haden. Somewhat later, it reached America. </P> <P>The roll-call of etching and drypoint artists that then ensued to constitute the etching revival is impressive: Stanley Anderson, Muirhead Bone, Frank Brangwyn, DY Cameron, FL Griggs, James McBey, Malcolm Osborne, William Strang, and William Walcot. American counterparts included John Taylor Arms, George Elbert Burr, George Overbury, Joseph Pennell, Herman Armour Webster, John Winkler, and Rosenberg himself. But, other than Brangwyn, these names are unfamiliar today. Even Whistler is probably better known to the public as a painter than as a brilliant printmaker. </P> <P data-associrn="41902"> <P><STRONG>Who stuck the knife in etching?</STRONG></P> <P>In the Depression years following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the thriving market for limited-edition artists’ prints &#8211; Rosenberg’s included &#8211; collapsed. Prints acquired by speculators were sometimes simply trashed, along with worthless share certificates. Rosenberg’s copper plates were victims too. Mostly located in London for the use of his printers, they were melted down in World War II to meet the need for metal.</P> <P>During the Depression, printmakers were compelled to adapt to market forces or die. In England, the hapless FL Griggs did the latter, leaving an impoverished widow and a tribe of young children in an unfinished modern medieval manor house. His follower, Graham Sutherland, took up painting instead, later enjoying fame second only to Francis Bacon.</P> <P>It proved relatively easy for Rosenberg to return to his architectural practice with the New York City firm of York and Sawyer, which had previously been generous in granting him sabbatical leave to work in Europe. Rosenberg had landed a spectacular commission for a series of drypoints of the Cleveland Railroad Terminal, depicting existing sites, demolitions, and new structures, but this was cancelled in November 1930, by which time he had completed 22 prints at a fee of $2,000 per plate. A smaller series for Cincinnati’s station followed, but several years elapsed before Rosenberg was paid for this in full &#8211; a sign of the times.</P> <P>Although the art market recovered in the 1950s, etching long remained sidelined. The cult surrounding its connoisseurs and collectors looked quaint, outdated, and snobbish. The artists listed above, who, like Rosenberg, had enjoyed volumes devoted to their work, were forgotten by an art history fixated on Modernism. </P> <P><STRONG>Etching today</STRONG></P> <P>Dismissive attitudes towards etching remain stubbornly persistent. Major practitioners, including Stanley Anderson, DY Cameron, Lionel Lindsay, and Randolph Schwabe &#8211; all of whom feature work alongside Rosenberg’s in <EM>Etched into memory</EM> &#8211; are still underrated and undervalued today. <EM>Grove Art Online</EM> recently asserted: ‘etching, as caricatured by second-generation etching-revival advocates’ emphasis on wiping, preciosity of line and paper choice, was viewed as effete and corrupt by most truly creative printmakers at the beginning of the 20th century.’<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Why hasn’t the skill and craftsmanship manifest in Rosenberg and his peers caused art historians and critics to think again? As the print dealer James Goodfriend explains, ‘The craft of art has no meaning for most modern collectors.’<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> The latter probably don’t know, or care, how etching/drypoint combinations are composed. Marcel Duchamp, chooser of the readymade (and an unlikely contemporary of Rosenberg), has much to answer for here!</P> <P>Another reason may be fame, or lack of it. Auguste Renoir’s and Paul Cézanne’s prints are coveted not because they are technically excellent but because both rank so highly in the story of modern art &#8211; and celebrity culture &#8211; as <EM>painters</EM>. The fact that Rosenberg was a better printmaker with a greater command of architectural heritage, was more widely travelled, and had an equally astute eye for formal and compositional balance in his work appears irrelevant. But since when has the art world been fair?</P> <P data-associrn="1471583"> <P><STRONG>Rosenberg at Te Papa</STRONG></P> <P>I recently inspected and admired our holdings of 11 Rosenberg prints. I wanted others to share the same sense of discovery; hence the show <EM>Etched into memory</EM> and this essay. The Rosenberg prints were all acquired by the Wellington collector Sir John Ilott (1884&#8211;1973) and form part of the 710 works on paper that he gifted to the National Art Gallery, forerunner of Te Papa, between 1952 and his death. The John Ilott Charitable Trust continues to generously support the acquisition of such works. Te Papa will soon enjoy further representation of Louis Conrad Rosenberg in the form of his 1927 tour de force drypoint <EM>The Grand Bazaar, Constantinople</EM>!</P> <P><STRONG>Whatever happened to Rosenberg?</STRONG></P> <P>In World War II, Rosenberg served in a US Army camouflage unit, where his skills in watercolour painting and drawing were suitably employed. Resuming his architectural career after the war, he became head designer at the New York alliance Kiff-Colean-Voss and Souder, retiring in 1964 and returning in his early 70s to his native Oregon, where he spent almost half his long life. </P> <P>Little has been recorded of Rosenberg’s personality, but this was probably as he would have wished. He was married, but with no children. In Rosenberg’s prime, critic Kenneth Reid found him ‘as delightful and genuinely sincere a person as his drawings and prints had led me to anticipate.’ Early success ‘had not overcome his natural modesty concerning his accomplishment and with the true feeling of an artist he realized that there was much hard work to be done and greater heights to aspire to before he could ever be satisfied with his contribution to Art.’<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Fifty years later, Ed Kemp, special collections librarian at the University of Oregon, noted the contrast between the elderly Rosenberg’s revered and formidable reputation and the reality: ‘a very warm, outgoing but modest gentleman, not only willing but flattered to present his collection of etchings to the University.’<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> That gift was accompanied by meticulous archival coverage of his oeuvre, published as a catalogue in 1978. The latter has proved invaluable for documenting Te Papa’s holdings of Rosenberg’s work, which I am pleased to put on show in <EM>Etched into memory</EM>.</P> <P><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Kenneth Reid (ed.), <EM>American Etchers Vol. X: Louis C. Rosenberg</EM>, The Crafton Collection, New York, 1930, unpaginated.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Malcolm Salaman,<EM> Modern Masters of Etching: L.C. Rosenberg</EM>, A.R.E., The Studio, London, 1929, p. 8.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>For more on the techniques of etching and drypoint, see Bill Ritchie, ‘Etching and Drypoint Printmaking’, </FONT><A href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeu9ZzHNExQ"><FONT size=2>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeu9ZzHNExQ</A>.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Gerald Ward, ‘Drypoint’, <EM>The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art</EM>, </FONT><A href="http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195313918.013.0114"><FONT size=2>http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195313918.013.0114</FONT>.</A> <LI><FONT size=2>The Times, 30 May 1881, p. 6.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>M B Cohn, <EM>‘Etching’, Grove Art Online</EM>, </FONT><A href="http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T026850"><FONT size=2>http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T026850</A>.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>James Goodfriend, email to Mark Stocker, 5 December 2014.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Edward Kemp, ‘Foreword’, in Gail McMillan (ed.), <EM>Catalog of the Louis Rosenberg Collection</EM>, Special Collections Division, University of Oregon Library, Eugene, 1978, p. 5.</FONT></LI></OL> </P> <P><BR>&nbsp;</P>
Louise Plympton, &lt;EM&gt;Louis Conrad Rosenberg&lt;/EM&gt;, 1935. University of Oregon Special Collections.

Louise Plympton, Louis Conrad Rosenberg, 1935. University of Oregon Special Collections.

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Louis Conrad Rosenberg, Grand Canal, Venice, 1927, drypoint,
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Sydney Mackenzie Litten, Gondolas, Venice, circa 1928, etching and drypoint on pale green paper,
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1962.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Louis Conrad Rosenberg, Ponte Fabricio, Rome, 1927, drypoint,
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Louis Conrad Rosenberg, Notre Dame du Val, Provins, 1924, etching,
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Louis Conrad Rosenberg, Rue Chartres, St. Malo (The Golden Apple), 1926, drypoint,
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Louis Conrad Rosenberg, The Acropolis, Athens, 1929, drypoint,
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Louis Conrad Rosenberg, The Grand Bazaar, Constantinople, 1927,
Purchased 2015.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz