burin engravings on copper

catalogue of engravings: the art of engraving

Engraving is one of the most ancient of the arts, capable of both great descriptive beauty and also expressive power. As long as 30,000 years ago, our ice-age ancestors were using sharpened flint burins and bone scrapers to incise the marks and lines of their celebrated animal images into the cave walls of southern France and northern Spain.

Much later, gold-and silversmiths used the burin to engrave precious metals, including armour and vessels for religious rituals. Then during the last half of the 15th century the practice of engraving on metal developed into a graphic art, known as intaglio printmaking. The early master engravers included Albrecht Dürer, the supreme virtuoso with the burin. Andrea Mantegna in Italy and Martin Schongauer in Germany, amongst others, also developed the expressive potential of engraving on metal as a graphic art. Schongauer in particular, working in Colmar, produced engravings of impregnable dignity with a pristine purity and clarity of line. In their almost abstract quality of line, his engravings seem to anticipate the non-representational use of the burin on copper in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Two influential key figures from the 20th century renaissance of engraving were Joseph Hecht and S.W. Hayter. They initiated a movement towards loosening up and liberating the act of engraving from its largely reproductive and representational past. While Hecht's marks and lines possess a lyrical beauty, Hayter's engravings contain a fury, energy and power which bought the medium fully into the modern era.

Like the timeless vitality which animates the art of our ice-age ancestors, it is the expression of 'life in the line' which – for me – is the point of engraving, and which produces 'poetry of the driven line.'

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