An Etcher Who Tames Paper and Plates

Through the physical process of her art, Valerie Thornton captures the striking detail of Romanesque architecture

`PRINTMAKING can put you in a bit of a straitjacket,'' Valerie Thornton says. But she also recalls how her discovery of the ``glorious medium of etching,'' in her last year at a London art school in the early 1950s, was a ``revelation'' to her. What grabbed her imagination then was a film, shown by the printmaker Stanley William Hayter, about work being done in Paris at his experimental workshop. She knew then that this was the medium for her. Subsequently she spent a period of eight months in the Hayter atelier. She describes his teaching as ``electrifying.''

Thornton has now been making etchings for well over 30 years. Her preferred subject is the architecture of medieval churches, particularly of the early period known as Romanesque. Her prints are rigorous, firm, textural. They also use subtle tones rather than bright or conflicting colors. Their light is distinctive but cool: a light that percolates the picture rather than dashing and flashing into it.

A characteristic Thornton print has a self-contained stillness about it. Something of the solidity and stonily structural nature of the old buildings not only provides her with the basis for her own images and vision, but also influences the style and technique of her prints.

She explains in an interview: ``I love a sense of order and proportion and measurement between things. I think your subject matter, in a way, is what you find outside that's inside - do you know what I mean? Something that corresponds.... You find something outside that corresponds to your inside world.''

But if she translates architectural form into print form, she makes it a process which also quite consciously and deliberately translates the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional. She is much more interested in the relationships and balances of forms across the surface of the etching plate, and of the paper on which it prints, than she is in describing the spatial depth of a building. Her images are presented frontally. She says she has ``never liked perspective.''

Nevertheless this two-dimensionality seems, if anything, a kind of challenge to her to still convey, in the power of the contours, delineations, and textures of the print, a building's mass. To get across the sense that a fa^cade is not some thin stage flat, but is the substantial outward evidence of a building's interior, of its structural mass, of its extension into, and containment of, space.

To a degree the etched surface of the plate, bitten into by the acid, is moving into the third dimension; the image thus conceived is a kind of ``relief.'' The etcher is also involved in a stimulating master-servant encounter with the hard flat surface of the plate. ``Etching,'' Thornton indicates, not without relish, ``is a very physical process. I've always enjoyed grappling with the plate and creating a life of texture on it. You have to ... tame it.''

All this working transfers itself somehow to the final image on the paper - an image which has a tough quality that can be achieved by no other means. The paper, in its turn, is somehow ``tamed'' by the impress of the inked plate weightily pressed against it, making it conform, forcing it - almost magically - to accept the image.

In spite of considerable success with her etchings, Thornton realized, about six years ago, that she ``must change.'' Triggering this decision was a retrospective exhibition of an English artist she has long admired, but is not stylistically influenced by: Graham Sutherland. Sutherland, early in his career, had moved from being a printmaker to being a painter.

Thornton's change has also brought a reawakened desire to paint. She hasn't stopped making prints, but her recent prints are quite different from the earlier ones. They are in many ways freer. They are more direct and painterly in technique, using much more vivid contrasts of black and white, and colors which, though still earthy, have a new edge to them. And figures have become more important.

She is, both in her paintings and prints, giving rapt attention to the figures that are often an integral part of Romanesque architecture, either in the form of wall paintings or stone carvings. The paintings are mainly concerned with the first, the prints with the second.

The print of the two little figures from the church of St. Aignan in Orleans is a fine example. The black outlines of the two contrasting figures - derived from separate stone carvings on capitals in the same church - are made by a process called ``sugar lift.'' Their wide and rather rugged outlines are painted with a brush onto the clean plate using a sticky mixture of sugar, water, and poster paint. The plate is then coated with a thin layer of varnish. When it is placed in warm water the sugar solution lifts off, exposing the plate. It can then be ``bitten'' in the acid.

``It is,'' says Thornton, ``the best way, in etching, to achieve a bold positive line.'' Any other method involves a great deal of ``fiddling'' which ends up looking overworked and contrived. She adds that being able to paint with a big brush directly onto the plate like this ``gives you a sense of freedom.''

It is also significant that she is now using opaque black in her prints, instead of the transparent medium she was using before. ``It's much more like what I was doing when I first began, a sort of `burnt toast' feeling about it.''

As for her paintings, they are quite large, and rather than ``burnt toast'' they achieve a kind of ``dry cheese'' effect which certainly echoes, in oil on canvas, the feel of the frescoed wall paintings in the churches (in France, Greece, Italy, and England) that have inspired her. She uses a medium that dries quickly. ``It makes a ... lovely crumbly texture. There is a lot of resistance [of the material] to it and I love that.''

But perhaps the real departure in these paintings, with their delicate balance of the careful and the free, of stillness and movement, is a kind of serious light-heartedness. The figures sometimes seem to be unconsciously funny, which Thornton enjoys and develops. She also brings out their innocence.

Her Adam and Eve, for instance, (they come from a recently uncovered wall painting at Easby Abbey in Yorkshire, England) are rather pudgy, bright-eyed, grown-up children who happen to be figures in a moral allegory but who are hardly crushed by its implications or even aware of them. Eve herself is not in the least seductive. And the couple's pitiless banishment from the Garden of Eden is not borne with guilt and angst.

Similarly, the angel - derived from a little figure below the knee of a ``Christ in Glory'' on the vaulted ceiling in the Chapelle-St.-Gilles in Montoire, France - is a splendid mixture of elegance and vitality, but not weightily solemn. He (she? it?) is like a bird, feather light yet very strong.

And the line of figures in the painting ``Processions, Lavardin''has its own kind of comic dignity, almost like a stately dance. But for this engaging lineup there is trouble ahead: To avoid collision with an arch that springs inconveniently from the high wall, the leading figure has suddenly had to duck. And he looks back as if to say to the others, ``Mind your head!''

But along with the humor, the anonymous primitivism of these wall paintings expresses, with a misleading simplicity, the same mixture of exaltation and earthiness that attracts the artist to the actual architecture of some Romanesque churches. These figures - and Thornton is far from just copying them - are, in fact, part of the architecture, part of the wall. In transforming them into her own art she doesn't forget that.

Her procedure says something about her relationship to these earlier artists. She doesn't make drawings of the chosen parts of their work and then copy and scale them up into paintings. She uses black and white photographs of them for reference. Both drawings and color photographs, she says, would give her too much information. To make a painting from her own drawings might be to copy something that she has already made her own invention; and the act of copying inevitably means a lack of interest, and so a lack of inspiration. Her black-and-white photographs, on the other hand, make her feel ``no loyalty.'' She just uses them ``like a map.''

The original wall paintings are often faded, sometimes badly restored, or interrupted by patches of blank plaster. They are fragments, survivals. They can also be difficult to see sometimes because they are, perhaps, high up or in other awkward or shadowy places. Above all, they are suggestive rather than complete. Like Leonardo da Vinci's advice to painters to let their fantasy work on cracks and marks in old walls, Thornton does, she says, ``a lot of making up'' in her re-creation of these ancient markings on walls. She adds, ``I suppose I'm using the work of these people to my own ends. But there are good precedents for that.''

Unlike a Picasso, who transformed oil paintings by the Old Masters - by Vel'asquez or Cranach - into Picasso paintings, Thornton's quieter approach is more straightforward.

What appeals to her, one suspects, is the anonymous and unsophisticated character of these works of art, by artists she describes as ``working in the middle of nowhere.'' She would never ``use'' a Piero della Francesco or Giotto. To try to change such a ``great human expression'' would be, she says, ``to court disaster.''

For her, these unknown Romanesque craftsmen have an ideal kind of ``innocence.'' They were not, she says, ``worried about someone looking over their shoulders.''

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