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Light-and-Shadow Dialogue

Today the Home Forum begins an occasional series, `Crosscurrents in Art,' a look at how artists are inspired by other artists regardless of period, geography, or culture.

By Christopher Andreae / April 13, 1992



THE narrative of art is, like the complex web of lines in an etching, a fascinating pattern of crosscurrents, or convergences and divergences.

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Art is nourished by art as much as by other forms of experience, and artists have carried on intriguing, if one-way, conversations across the centuries. The later conduct a kind of dialogue with the earlier, since every artist has the entire scope of previous art on which to call.

This chronological narrative of art is only partly an "evolution" - only to the degree that every artist is involuntarily a child of his period. But the idea of some clear line of development, like scientific knowledge refining or replacing previously held theories, is not necessarily the way art happens. Nor is it the way artists always think about art. They enjoy a freedom of choice with regard to their sources of inspiration, which may as easily mean an intense fraternity with an ecclesiastical artist

of the 12th century or an anonymous Nigerian woodcarver as with a notable Western painter of the previous generation.

Art historians inevitably investigate the "influence" of other artists on the artist they are studying. It helps understanding. But "influence" has an extraordinary number of different faces, from slavish (and flattering) imitation, to ironic adoption or distortion; from useful suggestions of technique or manner to a stimulation that has to do with intuition and feeling rather than style. There are cases, too, of artists approaching the art of the past as if it were some kind of gauntlet thrown down.

Most artists go through a period when they are moving toward the discovery of their own unmistakable individuality. At that stage you can see the work of other artists being tasted, swallowed, and digested most openly. But few artists, even in maturity, stop looking at other art. They probably won't be consciously thinking about Velazquez's "Meninas" or a Pompeiian wall painting as they work - there's enough to keep their attention fully occupied with the process on hand. But the dialogue is still there.

THE works shown here - by Rembrandt van Rijn, Georges Seurat, and Giorgio Morandi - are all on paper and all in black and white. Morandi, the most contemporary of the three, admired and studied works by both Seurat and Rembrandt. Seurat is known to have been interested enough in Rembrandt to have among very few reproductions of old masters in his possession, reproductions of 13 of the Dutch artist's etchings, including the "Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window" of 1648.

The times and places to which each of these artists belongs could hardly be farther apart. The Italian Giorgio Morandi belongs to our century (1890-1964). A quiet, somewhat secluded artist, he worked with a virtually religious dedication, on an intimate scale. He transmuted the simplest objects - groups of bottles, tins, jugs - into small paintings, drawings, and prints that are unusual in composition, intensely sensitive in treatment, and surprisingly bold.

Georges Seurat was French and lived from 1859 to one year after Morandi was born. He was painter of some of the most classically ordered, carefully constructed figure compositions in Western art. He brought a systematic organization to the sketch-like freedoms of French Impressionism by meticulously applying color spots and scrupulously observed tonal values. And he made some of the most beautiful drawings ever made.

Rembrandt, that giant of 17th-century Holland, was a great individualist, vigorous, unmannered, humane. He was a painter of "history," of Bible stories notably, and a portraitist. He was an outstanding, almost obsessive self-portraitist. He painted landscapes also, but only rarely did he paint, draw, or etch "still life," a genre special to his Dutch contemporaries. Rembrandt was a highly original etcher; his etchings are given as much importance as his paintings.

And it is his etchings, particularly, that both Seurat and Morandi looked at. It has been said that Rembrandt's etchings are more like paintings than drawings. They are things of deep, subtly varied shadows and strong lights. His etching needle was like an extension of intuition, incisive and free, accumulating a range of tones from the darkest black to the pure white of the paper. Forms emerge from shadow into light. Or their surfaces seem to shift from clarity into an obscurity where the edge of a hat brim or the underside of an arm can't be seen, only assumed. The viewer's knowledge takes over from his eye and we agree, on trust, that the forms hidden in the rich darkness are actually there.