- By Tom D'Evelyn
- Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. As presented by this book, there is a wonderful unity to the prints, spanning 35 years, of Leonard Baskin. The stark ruthlessness of his style is recognizable from his illustrations in widely diverse publications. Braziller, Little Brown, Viking, Grossman, the University of Chicago, the Government Printing Office, as well as the Gehenna Press in Northampton, Mass., have all produced books with Baskin illustrations. The occasions have been as diverse as the publishers. Baskin has illustrated ''The Illiad,'' ''Beowulf,'' Eugene O'Neill, Jonathan Swift, ''The Divine Comedy'' on the one hand, and ''The Framing of the Federal Constitution'' on the other. He has left his mark on many of the most important cultural institutions of our time, and of all time. Baskin is a professional illustrator, then, of proven flexibility, but, as this fine catalog suggests, he has produced an oeuvre of outstanding unity and integrity. To trace it back to the esoteric Jewish tradition, as Ted Hughes does in his fascinating Introduction, is not to exhaust the problem but only to suggest an element in the mix. With a directness that can be savage (and increasingly tender), Baskin has borne witness to something in man - and in himself - beyond ideology, beyond even ''tradition.'' One can approach this subject through the eyes Baskin gives us, the eyes of the self-portraits and the many portraits of others, mythical and historical, human and subhuman, which constitute an important part of his overall work. There are at least seven self-portraits here, sometimes of himself as himself, sometimes ''as a priest'' or ''as Theseus.'' Looking at these, we turn to other images and find a family resemblance in the eyes. The eyes are skeptical, as Ted Hughes points out; they are also, often, tired. Sometimes they squint. Some are hooded with heavy lids. Some must be imagined in the black space created by a surfeit of ink above the cheeks and nose. Almost always the eyes fix one in a wide, all-absorbing gaze. It can be disconcerting, given the ravaged faces in which these eyes are set. Some of Baskin's most compelling images are the fatigued, world-weary, still unbent heads of American Indians. Then there are the eagles, a series called ''A Tradition of Conscience,'' the gaze fixed, mineral if not moral. There are ravens and owls, too. There is a great ''Crow Ikon,'' all dark plumage and open maw, eyes out of sight. And in the ''Medea'' of 1982, birds and humans become one image, the eyes - bird's and woman's - complementary and Medea still unsubdued. Still unsubdued: For all its emphasis on the materiality of form, Baskin's art is, I find, a tremendous witness to the indestructibility of the human spirit. But it is very easy, as a commentator, to be tempted by these images into replacing the images with a poetic interpretation. Ted Hughes's introduction may be a case in point. Go to the pictures, then, and ponder what is really there. Disgust, shock, shame may be the viewer's lot, for a spell. Baskin's genius is tragic in so far as it produces in us imponderable knowledge out of suffering. I, for one, am grateful.
The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin: A Catalogue Raisonne, 1948-1983, by Alan Fern and Judith O'Sullivan; introduction by Ted Hughes. Boston: New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown & Co. $60. 304 pp. with 739 B&W and 21 color prints.