The Artist's Hand: The Prints of Mauricio Lasansky
At the same time Lasansky was working on the monumental sequence For An Eye An Eye, he created the tender print My Boy of 1947. Instead of the hatred and malice of For An Eye An Eye, love and hope are expressed in the universal theme of family. For Lasansky, this family is at the heart of the regeneration of society. In this print the mature characteristics of Lasansky's style emerged. Gone is the elegant style of Auto Retrato. This state of My Boy, a pull from the unfinished plate of the print, shows the direction in which Lasansky was moving. In this early state, the trace of the artist's hand is more clearly visible than in the finished edition. Lasansky allowed the vestiges of the first etched lines to remain in an earlier jawline and the right ear which hover behind the drawn image. Prior to My Boy, Lasansky had used color as an enhancement to the black-and-white structures of his prints. Often, he tinted them by a double printing method. Reusing the same plate for two colors exactly registered. In 1945 the artist began to use color in his prints in a more autonomous role, using separate plates for each color and transparent layers of lithographic ink. Lasansky usually printed the key plate first, inked in black with the other colors laid over it in transparent glazes, thus imparting a great luminosity to the finished print.
In the 1950s, a fourth Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Lasansky to study in Spain, a country with which he felt a great cultural kinship. In Spain he examined the painted caves of Altamira, as well as the works of Velazquez, a painter he greatly admires. Just as the atrocities committed in Germany shaped his work in the 1940s, the destructive power of the Spanish Civil War shaped his work in the 1950s. Although the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the Spain Lasansky visited in the 1950s still lay in rubble, both materially and physically. Lasansky was so intellectually and emotionally torn by the Spanish conflict that he lay awake at night unable to sleep. The haunting print Espana, an intaglio of 1956, was his catharsis.
Espana is an oculus through which to view Lasansky's entire body of work. The phantasmic, yet monumental, figure in Espana, and the mother standing in grief over her dead child behind the mounted figure, contribute to Lasansky's dark statement against all wars, not just the Spanish Civil War. In Espana the spectral figure bears witness to the tragedy of life but is not defeated by it. Espana is one print in which Lasansky merged the monumental with the personal. Lasansky's spectral equestrian figure summons the ghostlike figure of El Cid, Spain's examplar of love of country. On a more universal level, the figure is death, the rider of the pale horse who gallops through the Apocalypse.
In the 1960s Lasansky worked on the scabrous Nazi Drawings, a series of thirty-three, large-scale compositions for which, apart from his impressive graphic work, he is best known. The Nazi Drawings were, due to their title, misconceived to be pro-fascist. This caused such an outcry that the public formed picket lines in from of New York's Whitney Museum when the works were shown in 1967. When Lasansky invited the public into the Whitney to view the works, they were moved to tears by the pathos of the drawings. In the same decade he created two prints that depict different phases of life with serenity and opulence, Portrait of a Young Artist and Old Lady with Hands on Face. Portrait of a Young Artist, a color intaglio of 1965, presents a calmly dignified and extremely self-possessed young woman. By contrast, Old Lady with Hands on Face, an intaglio of 1969, Lasansky emulates Rembrandt in showing a person "rich in wear." With her gnarled and arthritic hand resting thoughtfully on her chin, the old woman seems to contemplate the past and the impending future.
In the 1970s the mood of Lasansky's prints on the theme of war became reconciliatory. His palette brightened and his prints became larger and lighter in tone and in message. This is exemplified in a series of eight prints of 1976, based on the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer of the Jewish Community. From this prayer comes the beneficent line: "may there be abundant peace from heaven and life, for us and for all of Israel; and say, Amen." This is the elegiacally expansive spirit that he developed in the series.
The prints are split into upper and lower registers. There is a single figure at the bottom of each; these range from idealized to sinister German officers, like those in the Nazi Drawings, helmeted in the skulls of their victims. A totemic, transcendent dove of peace occupies the upper space. All of the prints contain anonymous, stenciled numbers which are symbolic of those the Nazis tattooed on the arms of millions of victims. With these insistent numerals, Lasansky reminds us that the Nazis used numbers to objectify the people they executed.
Hands are the focal point of this series. Of their prominence in the prints, Lasansky has said: "most of them have a mask or use their hands, because I am still ashamed when I think of the suffering all the humans made the people endure, I get embarrassed just thinking about it, so I cover my embarrassment." Each print in the group looks at suffering from a different vantage point; Kaddish I is a self-portrait in which wounds appear on the palms of the artist's hands which are raised in a priestly gesture of benediction. While the stigmata is primarily identified with the wounds of Christ, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah prescribes gashing the palms of the hands to provide succor for the ghosts of the departed. The fingertips are bloodied; thus the artist implies all humanity shares in this massive genocide. The leather bands wrapped around the hands may be phylacteries which contain slips of scriptural passages and are traditionally worn by Jewish men during prayer. The glowing candles, figuratively balanced on the tops of the fingers, could refer to the candles of mourning that burn continuously for seven days in a Jewish household after a loved one's death. By contrast, in Kaddish V the figure in the lower register is not a witness, but a helpless child whose tiny hands prop up a mask to cover its face.
Primary colors hallmark The Kaddish series, which is among Lasansky's most technically complex. The prints were composed of many jigsaw-like plates of varying sizes which Lasansky fit together like a huge puzzle on the bed of the press. A plate covered in color, rather than black ink, often became the master plate, contrary to convention and his own earlier practices. Kaddish I is composed of ten plates, Kaddish V of nineteen. In an extension of this procedure, he has even used the record amount of fifty-two separate plates. The plates vary both in size and materials. Metals used are copper, zinc, and galvanized steel. While this practice seems new for the 1970s, Lasansky had cut a plate with irregular borders as early as 1938, and removed parts of the plate in many of the prints he made to use the crisp white of the paper in his composition.
In 1982 Mauricio Lasansky began a new series of eight large drawings; the biggest among them is six by nine feet. These are based upon the plight of over 6,000 Argentines who, in their own country, were kidnapped, tortured and executed by undercover military units in the mid-1970s. The death squads, against whom charges of anti-Semitism have been leveled, were called patotas, a slang term for a street gang. Their innocent victims were called Los Desaparecidos, the disappeared. In keeping with his practice of addressing large public topics alongside private views, he recently began a series portraying visual artists, writers, musicians, scientists, and politicians who exemplify the highest human ideals. Among those figures are Goya, Tolstoy, Verdi, Pasteur, and Lincoln. The larger-than-life print Madame Curie, an intaglio of 1987, represents Marie Curie, not in her laboratory surrounded by apparatus in the midst of discovery, but contemplatively sitting in profile with an overwhelming richness and detail of dress. Contrary to expectations, in all of these prints Lasansky offers a glimpse into the intimate sides of their characters.
It will be fascinating to see what new understandings of the human condition Lasansky will explore in the future. He has the artistic breadth of vision to align himself with both the benign and evil aspects of life. Lasansky is an artist who recreates the world and invests himself in all aspects of it. As he himself has said with his wry wit: "The devil knows more when he is an old devil."
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