visual thinking

Image: Marco Buti


In art, there are numerous manifestations in which the physical intervention of the artist is inseparable from the creation of meaning.

The elaboration of an engraving, as well as any work of art, is accompanied by intense mental activity. Manifestation on the material plane corresponds to a network of associations, influences, memories, desires, knowledge, reflections that, precisely when realized, reach the maximum concentration and demand: it becomes form. It is a living process, whose most worthy consequence is the work itself. It is also the only result that the eventual spectator will be able to evaluate. However, for the artist, this same work was much more a process, a simultaneity of matter and thought, imperceptible from an external point of view. Even an observer standing next to the artist during the whole period of elaboration would only be aware of the physical action, without the corresponding mental processes.

In the specific case of engraving, it seems to be even more difficult to understand this connection, due, I believe, to the little knowledge of its history and processes, and the scarcity of really reflective texts. What I expose below is fully contained in the images themselves, provided you have the proper knowledge. But this inner point of view is acquired only by direct and prolonged experience.

In this work, there is no contradiction between craftsmanship and concept. In art there are numerous manifestations in which the physical intervention of the artist is inseparable from the creation of meaning. This practice is never an end in itself, but continuity between thinking and doing. Neither pure concept nor action without thought. It is an impure situation, the elements of which cannot be separated without destroying it.

An engraving or any plastic work is literally visual thought, it contains in essence the artist's concepts about art and its connections with the world, which only through continuity and deepening of reflection down to the material plane will be able to develop and generate the densest meanings. In the field of visual arts, a technical requirement should never be turned inwards, but linked to language requirements. The artist organizes sensitive qualities: it is a syntax as rigorous as the verbal one, but its meaning is inseparable from materiality.

Its manifestations seek a totally meaningful structure, whose relationships have language demands. The artist organizes sensitive qualities: it is a syntax as rigorous as the verbal one, but its meaning is inseparable from materiality. Manifestations of it seek a fully meaningful structure, the relationships of which have a level of difficulty analogous to, say, rhyme or some other internal organizing principle in poetry. The visual language, with an artistic intention, is poetic language, with an infinitely higher level of articulation than the current one. Like words, graphic signs weave a network of meaningful relationships: highly organized matter transcends itself.

The graphic activity displays a very showy technical and material face. One workshop engraving has numerous equipment, presses, and a series of manual activities in progress. An unwary observer, who doesn't quite understand the meaning of those operations, is easily led to overestimate the technical aspect, which is displayed with such intensity. He believes that it is the key to the realization of the work, or perhaps he is led to deduce from that doing a corresponding lack of thinking.

Engraving has an additional complicating factor: the lack of immediate results. It is an indirect procedure, the result of which is only known at the end, with the impression. Even the external appearance of the graphic procedures can barely be observed: the greatest dexterity does not necessarily correspond to the best work. The artist himself, while engraving the matrix, is not sure of the result. This is the great difficulty in the practice of engraving, and not the inversion of the image: the action exerted on the matrix will only have its full consequence in the act of printing; therefore, in a totally different materiality, constituted by the sum of ink and paper.

This peculiarity introduces an aspect of great intellectual and sensitive demand: the engraver works with probabilities, not certainties. It does not have the immediate response of the brushstroke or the electronic screen at the time of construction of the image, which should not be less articulated for that reason. There is a constant mental effort to visualize something that does not yet exist, to make each sign recorded correspond to the constructive needs of the image printed.

We work in anticipation, trying to control a phenomenon that will only be fully realized in the future. Each shot of the engraving implies a chain of others, in search of a visual structure subject to the variables of the ink, the inking and printing processes and the qualities of the papers. What seemed strictly manual, observed internally, also reveals an analogy with chess. Without knowing its rules and the structure of thought that determine it, we will take the mere displacement of pieces throughout the game.

When using the word engraving, we cannot ignore the nuances that this generalization hides. In fact, there is a generic engraving and many particular ones. The first is an engraving that does not exist, or that intends to be the sum of all the engravings, encompassing their broader characteristics. It doesn't have an author, or it has all of them, from the most brilliant to the most mediocre. Each particular engraving has a defined author, an artist who can operate alone or with the collaboration of a group of technicians, but whose presence permeates the image: it is affected by a historical, technological and cultural moment, and by a defined personality. The generic engraving is potential, while the particular one is a living realization, full of particularities that create a meaning.

These engravings, generic and particular, correspond to different techniques: the manual technique and what I would call lived technique. The first seeks to present the widest range of possibilities, in order to offer adequate support to the needs of an anonymous user. It is solidly based on the physical and chemical properties of materials and instruments, seeking to guarantee the safety of any result. It always takes into account a reader with no experience in engraving, starting with the most elementary levels. While it seeks to be exhaustive, it is not, as the manuals are written from the author's experience. It is a suitable technique for initiation, since, in principle, it allows the correct performance of any work. But something is missing: when you get to artistic praxis, things change.

No book is enough without concrete guidance from someone more experienced. Real work with engraving depends on educating sensitivity to the specific qualities and reactions of materials, which are not verbalizable. The advisor, if he is competent, will certainly have a mature artistic experience, the result of contact with his own work, infinitely more intense than any reading. Being an artist, he will have a poetic project, based on which his relationship with engraving exists. Therefore, he will know how to allow the progressive transformation of the manual technique in the apprentice's work into the lived technique, the only one adequate to the artistic level.

This is the key point for understanding technique as an intellectual process: from the moment he associates engraving with a poetic project, the artist selects from the available technical arsenal only what is necessary to produce the signs corresponding to the integral manifestation of his affective thought. , including doubts and wishes. As Duchamp says, “in the creative act, the artist passes from intention to realization, through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle for realization is a series of efforts, suffering, satisfactions, refusals, decisions that cannot and should not be fully conscious either, at least on the aesthetic level”.

Experienced technique only serves to realize of that work, in whose search you can even subvert the technique of the manual. Unlike the latter, it is a risky activity, which always operates at the limit of possibilities, on the dividing line between full achievement and failure. It is more than experimental: it is the sum of experimentation with its critique. Extend your requirements to the space of the workshop: if the collective is a workshop with possibilities for everyone, what workshop of the artist becomes an extension of his mind and body.

At the technical level thus understood, the values ​​of the author are already beginning to be defined. If the commitment, when working artistically on the material plane, is with the structuring of a visual and poetic language, laden with meanings, and it is presumed that these meanings are important, at least for the artist, and perhaps for the eventual spectator, contributing to the construction of both as human beings, then there is, already at the technical level, an ethical sense in each action.

This process, encompassing the practice of printmaking and manifesting itself through it, creates a distinction qualitative in the use of this technology. Technique becomes a communication channel between mind and matter: it is an active element of a network of cultural, social, economic, formal, historical, affective associations, developing on many levels, but without fractures. From now on, there is no longer exclusively technique, like making material, but also poetry, making intellectual. It is no longer craftsmanship, but art. In the beautiful expression of Décio Pignatari, there is a passage from historical time (where technology is located) to cultural time (place of art, artistic use and technological means): “The passage from historical time to cultural time is the passage from technology to wisdom”.

It is useful to compare two concrete examples: the engraving procedures used by Piranesi and Morandi. I choose these artists because they are at the forefront, use apparently similar techniques and because they have reliable information about the elaboration of their graphic works. This analysis could be done with any other artist, as long as their processes were known precisely. This aspect is problematic: if the work as a result belongs to humanity, its processes are totally individualized and tend to disappear.

Both artists use metal engraving, and almost exclusively etching as an engraving technique. It involves covering the matrix with an acid-resistant varnish, then drawing with metallic tips, crossing this protective layer. The engraving itself is carried out by the acid, corroding the open lines in the varnish, obtaining deeper engravings the longer this corrosion lasts. With matrix printing, lines whose tone is proportional to the depth of the engraved lines are transmitted to the paper. This is the basic description of etching, found with few variations in all engraving manuals.

Examining Piranesi's work, one notices the constant use of multiple morsura, that is, several acid baths, reaching a maximum of fourteen, corresponding, therefore, to lines of fourteen different tonalities. As such lines are always structurally organized as a drawing, they can create the illusion of at least fourteen planes in space. Now, Piranesi operates within the visual universe of the Renaissance perspective, which he knows deeply because he is also an architect. It presupposes a succession of planes to infinity, but the artist does not use it to represent real space, but to create a gigantic and labyrinthine space. Therefore, for its full construction – on which the meaning of the work depends – even more tonal values ​​are needed than to create an illusion of real space. This intention is implied at the time of recording.

Morandi's graphic work is produced almost two centuries later. He also uses etching, which has hardly changed since Piranesi's time. But his interpretation is different: studies have revealed that, in about 80% of his engravings, he opted for flat morsura, that is, a single acid bath. Therefore, printed lines of a single tonal value. However, the Morandian space is no longer that of Piranesi: it is a compressed space, where one does not try to reproduce the visible, but its experience. There is no longer, as in perspective, an infinite succession of shots in a virtual void. A half-tone scale, subtly obtained by grouping lines with the same tonal value to a greater or lesser extent, is sufficient for the full construction of Morandi's etching.

By carefully observing the interpretation of a sensitive reader, we can identify the echoes of recording techniques and perceive their presence in the meaning that emanates from the work. In the following two texts, I highlight the passages that show more clearly the link between technical procedure and meaning. The first excerpt is by Aldous Huxley, about the series of Prisons from Piranesi:

“The fantasy of Prisons by Piranesi is completely different in quality from that manifested in the works of any of his immediate predecessors. All the plates in the series are evidently variations on a single symbol, which refers to things existing in the physical and metaphysical depths of the human soul – heartburn and confusion, nightmare and anxiety, incomprehension and panic bewilderment.

The most disturbingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect uselessness that reigns throughout. Its architecture is colossal and magnificent. One is made to feel that the genius of great artists and the labor of innumerable slaves went into the creation of these monuments, every detail of which is completely without purpose. Yea, to no purpose: for stairs lead nowhere, vaults support nothing but their own weight, and enclose vast spaces which are never really rooms, but only anterooms, storerooms, vestibules, outbuildings. And this Cyclopean stone magnificence is everywhere rendered squalid by wooden steps, rickety walkways and walkways. And the squalor is just for the sake of squalor itself, since all those flimsy paths through space are manifestly without purpose[…]

All texts about Piranesi highlight its monumental and infinite spaces, extracting from them the main poetic charge. This architecture would not have achieved such capability without its unique recording process. The same goes for Morandi, as can be seen in this excerpt from Argan: “What, for De Chirico, is another space and, for Carrà, a geometric metamorphosis, is for Morandi a concrete space, and even saturated, resulting from an equivalence between level and tension, depth and density, between the awareness of one's own being and the being of the world fully experienced equally, communicating with each other, as if in a continuous osmosis. All his life he paints the same things: empty bottles and containers, few flowers, few landscapes. These are the walls, the filter of osmosis: in them, around them, coagulates and fills up, saturating itself with light, the space that belongs to nature and consciousness, and that does not present itself as a hypothetical construction of a spatiality. universal, but as a lived space, amalgamated with the time of existence. […] He arrives at this essential identity between the self and the world, at this choice of object in terms of mediation and smoothing, through a slow process of selection and reduction of values: this is what one sees in the etchings. , where the calculated graphic reticles generate a light with various frequencies that, after decanting it, retain it in its fabric”.

A technical realization is also cultural, insofar as it makes it possible to manifest on a concrete level what only existed potentially, as an idea, theory or project, thus making it possible to think things that could not be thought. When what existed on the theoretical level acquires the possibility of being realized practically, the consequences can change the world. Just think of the press, photography, cinema, television, or the steam engine, electricity, the atomic bomb. Technique is never an isolated factor, but fully integrated – and powerfully influential in the web of human relationships.

Saying that “the technique” or “the engraving” is this or that means nothing more than a self-indulgent attitude. In artistic practice, they are so amalgamated with thought that analyzing them in isolation, disregarding changing contexts – economic, cultural, political, historical and, above all, the decisive role of the artist –, can only produce gross generalizations, diverting attention from the values ​​really essential. Any medium in itself is only potential, like a computer without . It is only possible to pull him out of inertia with a vivifying thought, the result of experience that, incorporating itself into matter, transforms paper and ink, felt and grease, into a work of art.

*Marco Buti He is a professor at the Department of Plastic Arts at the School of Communications and Arts at USP.

Originally published on USP Magazine, No 29.


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