A world in the underbrush

RODOLPHE Bresdin (1825-85) was as idiosyncratic a printmaker as ever lived, and only a notch or two below the greatest. In fact, among those who only made prints and weren't also painters, his name does rank at the very top. Relatively little is known of his early life except that he was profoundly influenced by the etchings and engravings of Rembrandt and D"urer, and so obsessed with the books of James Fenimore Cooper that he traveled from his native France to North America after winning a competition for a bank-note design to see its wilderness forests for himself.

Although some recognition came his way in 1861 with the publication of 12 etchings in the Revue Fantaisiste, and his work was admired by Baudelaire and other Parisian literary figures, he never fully won the respect of his fellow artists. Only Odilon Redon, his pupil for a while, recognized his genius. To the rest he was Chingachgook, thanks to his passion for Cooper's ``The Last of the Mohicans,'' or ``Le Ma^itre au Lapin,'' because of a pet rabbit that shared his quarters in Toulouse and went about with him on his arm.

Bresdin belongs to the noble company of etchers, lithographers, engravers, and workers in the other graphic media whose creative energy was directed exclusively toward what could be gouged, bitten, scratched, or drawn on wood, copper, zinc, or stone. Artists like Jacques Callot, Hercules Seghers, Giovanni Piranesi, Charles Meryon, Muirhead Bone, and K"athe Kollwitz, all of whom were able to shape and communicate everything they wanted without color or fancy brushwork.

Bresdin said it all with thousands of tiny dots and lines, and in a format that often was no larger than a small envelope. The world he evoked in his exquisite etchings and lithographs was dense, magical, and mysterious, and it occasionally contained almost as many strange and exotic beings as the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

He was particularly adept at depicting trees, but not the type we normally see. His have a peculiarly animated nature that manifests itself in oddly twisted branches and twigs, massive foliage that appears as secretive and impenetrable as the painted forests of Albrecht Altdorfer, and exposed root-systems that seem to wander about the underbrush like so many frisky snakes. Moreover, if we look closely, and try to differentiate between leaves and vines, blasted stumps, and fantastically shaped boulders, we may gradually become aware that numbers of small feathered and furry creatures are watching us from behind roots and shrubbery, or are going about their business in the tangled undergrowth.

It is difficult to determine what impresses us most about his prints, for he succeeded admirably in transforming a vivid imagination, a passion for observation and detail, extraordinary technical control, and a powerful sense of design into images as compactly integrated and richly detailed as a Persian rug. His technique was almost beyond belief, and yet it hardly ever overshadowed the other aspects of his art. His subjects might occasionally be eclipsed by the immensity and opulence of the landscapes in which they find themselves, but that must be attributed to Bresdin's perception of the awesomeness of nature, not to overactive craftsmanship.

Much of his effectiveness lies in the remarkable consistency with which he fashioned his pictorial universe. Everything, from the tiniest blade of grass to the most extravagant cloud formation, was distilled down to a simple dot or linear device, and then worked into the composition with as much loving care as is needed to make an exceptionally fine piece of lace.

The result is a black, white, and gray surface of incredible richness and subtlety that shimmers with a life of its own. This is particularly true of his master prints, and especially of ``The Good Samaritan.'' The latter is 22 inches high and 17 inches wide, and consists of literally hundreds of thousands -- I am tempted to say millions -- of truly tiny dots and lines.

Still more amazing is the fact that it is a lithograph, a medium usually handled broadly in the manner of a crayon drawing. Even to attempt such a project required great determination and patience, and to finish it so brilliantly demanded a sustaining vision and enthusiasm capable of overcoming the sheer boredom and the temptation to settle for mere mechanical rendering that would have defeated a lesser artist.

Bresdin was 23 when he completed this print. Despite the fact that he made roughly 150 etchings and lithographs during his lifetime, he never again attempted anything quite so large or complex -- although several of his later images are every bit as provocative and detailed. It's almost as though, having once done the near-impossible, he felt he could relax a bit and direct his talents and energies into more modestly scaled pictorial extravaganzas.

Even so, this one graphic masterpiece was enough to place him among the world's great printmakers. Not, obviously, on the level of Rembrandt, D"urer, Goya, and Picasso, and not even quite on a par with his pupil Redon. But certainly just below them, and far above those of today's artists who believe the only real difference between a painting or drawing and a print is that the latter can be duplicated any number of times.

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