THE narrative of art is, like the complex web of lines in an etching, a fascinating pattern of crosscurrents, or convergences and divergences.
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.
The process of making an etching is linear. But Rembrandt adapted, from earlier kinds of engraving on metal, a stock of hatching and crisscrossing techniques that in his hands produced a range of textures and shadows rather than outlines and edges. It is as though he wanted the needle to approximate the effects of the brush. He worked with a freedom of marks, lines, and movements that a craftsman intent on merely reproducing a picture would hardly have invented. Rembrandt treated the print as a primary f orm of art, a highly sensitive medium responding directly to the artist's hand.
Rembrandt was an avid art collector and was profoundly interested in the work of artists who preceded him. The way in which he transformed such closely studied precedents into works totally his own tells us much about the meaning of genuine originality.
Rembrandt also collected curiosities, and presumably the beautifully marked mollusk shell that was the subject of one of his rare still lifes - a small etching - was in his collection. Perhaps Rembrandt saw a parallel between the checkered patterning on this particular shell and the skills and potential of making an etching on a metal plate. That interest alone was apparently the reason he chose to make an etching of the shell.
And Morandi, in 1921, at just the point he is believed to have studied Rembrandt's etchings most closely and started to explore the shadowy effects of crosshatching, also made a small etching of a conical shell. But the differences are revealing: Morandi's shell is confined in such a narrow frame that it seems almost insignificant and cowed, hidden perhaps under something, while Rembrandt's shell, drawn with precise bravura, is in striking perspective and is grand in scale. Morandi's object is humble and
discreet, Rembrandt's, by comparison, almost elemental in its impressive presence.
The Morandi etching "Still Life with Vases on a Table" (made 10 years later) is an accomplished development conceptually. But his technique has remained uncomplicated, almost a system (unlike Rembrandt's extraordinary freedoms) of lines crossing each other with increased density where darker tones are required. The vases in the foreground have had shadings actually blanked out to make them into completely white shapes, and the vessels behind them have in turn been reduced to gentle shadows. The white ves sels, with their characteristically wavering edges, have become like the spaces in the image, while the "background" has become more palpable and dense. Spaces and solids, objects and the intervals between them, interchange. Instead of using the Rembrandtesque etching techniques to describe the form of objects, Morandi has taken both the brightest and dimmest tones he could produce by the etching process to the extremes of perception. It is almost as if he wanted to see how far he could move away from clear
delineation and yet still retain the feeling and presence of the objects. Morandi could hardly have moved further from Rembrandt, and yet his means remain rooted in that tradition of an etching as a thing of light and shadow, of the perceptible and the imperceptible. And like Rembrandt's etchings, the shadows always have within them little specks and dots of light.
This may well have been what attracted Seurat to Rembrandt's etchings. Seurat was not a printmaker. But his drawings have much in common with prints in their scrupulously observed and rendered gradations of shadow and sudden contrasts of pure whiteness. Made with conte crayon on heavily textured Ingres paper, they deal with forms both clearly illuminated and completely lost in darkness. But like Rembrandt's and Morandi's etchings, inside that darkness there is a wonderful sparkle. This is achieved by a c ollaboration of conte crayon and paper, the lights left blank and untouched, the blackest areas produced by such vigorous downward pressure that the paper's miniscule hills and valleys are flattened. All the in-between gradations of light and dark are captured with such subtlety that it is hard to believe they were made by a man with a crayon in his hand.
Contemporaries of Seurat in Paris certainly imitated Rembrandt's etchings in their drawings and prints, some almost to the point of deliberate derivation. But Seurat used what he learned from Rembrandt for his own unprecedented aims. In the process he, like Morandi, made images in black, white, and all the nuances of tone between that are consummately his vision.
The crosscurrents perceivable in the images on this page shed telling light on the individualities of the three artists. Yet it seems certain enough that Seurat's supreme drawings would not have been what they are without Rembrandt's remarkably powerful etchings there first. And Morandi's moving and deeply pondered prints would not have been what they are without the achievements of both older artists.