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Mauricio Lasansky:  The Artist on His Art

The Prints of Mauricio Lasansky

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Since even before his time in New York, Lasansky had settled upon the metal plate as the ideal medium for printmaking, and now he made intaglio printing the central focus of his curriculum. It is not that he has anything against the woodcut or the lithograph, but rather that the discipline imposed by the metal seems to have at once a liberating and a controlling effect on the artist. Once one has learned to command the material, in Lasansky's view, then one is freely able to create in full consciousness of where the process will lead; other techniques may be too easy, too similar to other manipulations in the visual arts, to yield the strong character he likes to see in prints.

In his first years at Iowa, Lasansky undertook work in two directions. First, there was a continuing series of self-portraits and portraits of his family, often playful, sometimes theatrical, but always exuding gentle sympathy and warmth. In contrast, there were brooding, more abstract prints, like the series For an Eye an Eye, or Bodas de Sangre, with complex iconography, intentional echoes of Picasso (of the Guernica period) and Chagall, and a sense of violence imposed upon humanity. Whether confronting the plight of Spain, the heartbreak of war, or the dignity of children, Lasansky maintains a sobriety in these works through his use of the frontal or direct profile representation of the human figure, and through his subtle use of colors in combination with deep, dark tonalities.

Both the formal and the iconographic development of Lasansky's work reached a climax in The Nazi Drawings of 1961-1966. For Lasansky, this was both an artistic watershed and an emotional catharsis, during which he turned his major creative energies away from the print to give physical embodiment to his seething reaction against the Nazi holocaust. He saw the unleashing of bestiality in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s as a brutal attack on man's dignity, and felt it carried the potential seeds of man's self-destruction. Elements of his earlier prints reappear in The Nazi Drawings, but transformed into powerful visual equivalents for the perpetrators and victims of the tragedy as well as the paralyzed bystanders.

When Lasansky emerged from the crucible of The Nazi Drawings, his prints again dealt with the child, the woman, the bishop (or the cardinal, often in a less morbid context or a more optimistic vein), but the fragmentation of form, new treatment of color, and lighter tonal environment of the drawings now transformed his prints.

He has described one of the basic characteristics of each artist as residing in the use of scale, especially in the relationship of the size of the figure to the picture area. Here Lasansky has kept to a remarkably consistent course, as if to prove his own point; the figure is always large on the plate, and the plate is often so large that the figure is represented almost life size. Moreover, the figure is kept at a dignified distance from the viewer, as people in conversation conventionally assume a certain distance from one another. Through these means, Lasansky's prints set up a very specific kind of conversation with the viewer; the figures he creates exist in a world of his particular invention.

Although color has often been present in Lasansky's work, the sense of the prints of the 1940s and 1950s is almost monochromatic — with richness provided through the introduction of few hues in each print. With the prints of the past decade, however, Lasansky has brightened and complicated his colors, taking pleasure in the luminosity and transparency of the ink over the brilliant white of his paper. He has likened his recent use of color to working in fresco, and he takes care not to lose the freshness of a color by deadening it against an unsympathetic tone.

Along with the growing complexity of color, the recent prints are composed of a considerable number of plates of varying sizes, composed elaborately on the bed of his enormous press after a complex series of inkings. These prints are large, and the mechanical difficulty of realizing them is considerable, so the appearance of freshness and spontaneity they preserve is testimony to Lasansky's technical command of his medium. The more recent prints seem to show Lasansky turning from Spanish to an Italianate mood, from blacks and browns to the primaries, from mysterious shadows to open emotion. This may seem particularly curious in his very latest work, dealing with Mexican themes (inspired, no doubt, by the pleasure taken by the artist in the second residence they maintain in Mexico), but it may be a fair comment that the Mexican light, spirit, and civilization are as different from the Italian as is the Spanish. In any case, the gods and natural presences of the recent prints have little in common with the early Argentinian work of Lasansky, beyond their shared sense of scale and human representation. The work of the last two years displays a freedom as well as a fluency that indicate Lasansky has liberated himself from his earlier influences without abandoning the discoveries those influences had led him to make.

In a sense, Lasansky's whole life has been a search for freedom. He has sought political, academic, and intellectual freedom, and he has labored to free himself from the physical restraints of his medium. His work expresses these two aspects of freedom: the masterly fluency of a printmaker, and the insistence that dignity and humanity triumph over meanness and bestiality.

To describe someone as a "master," in the sense that he has subdued his materials and ceased to struggle with the problems that interfere with expression through his craft, also may suggest another sense of the word — that implied in the phrase "master and apprentice." This is an unfashionable role for a pedagogue today, and it is a relationship that Lasansky has consciously tried to avoid — not always with success. His personality and temprament are so compelling that many of his students either have been overwhelmed or have reacted to him for a time, but when this passes, as it has with his succcessful students, it can be seen that Lasansky's emphatic pedagogy has had its desired effect. What he has tried to do, above all, at Iowa, is to surround himself with a group of serious fellow artists, less experienced and less sure of themselves than he is, and to give them a sense of value, a series of basic insights into the relationships between vision and materials, and the example that a confident artist can be a generous teacher without losing his identity. His former students are not only printmakers of note, but teachers of distinction.

Apart from Lasansky's immense contribution as a teacher, he has become one of this country's most powerful creators of images. He never turned away from the representation of the human figure, even when abstract expressionism was the order of the day, but retained a humanist's orientation making man the measure of all other things. Although not a political artist in the usual sense of the word, he has always displayed a sense of outrage, culminating in The Nazi Drawings, at the all too frequent displays of imbecility and inhumanity with which he has been confronted. He has leavened his powerful imagery and strong outrage with works of tenderness and intimacy, and with a remarkable series of psychological studies of himself displaying various states of mind ranging from amusement to misery.

His is a rich art, drawing from literature, politics, theatre, the dance, reflecting an affinity for the Latin civilizations, and a delight in the masks and costumes in which people have cloaked their roles in life. Most of all, though, Mauricio Lasansky has been instrumental in establishing the print in America as a viable, independent art form, and creating prints of unmistakable individual character that are, above all, eloquent visual statements. He has been industrious, but, since his prints evolve gradually through many stages, not prolific. He has been imaginative and individual, but not obscure or idiosyncratic. Most of all, he has mastered his medium thoroughly, and he has transmitted a sense of the value of that mastery to all who have seen his prints or studied with him.

Reprinted from "Lasansky: Printmaker" (The University of Iowa Press, 1975).
Reprinted with permission.

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