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Surreal printmaking at MIA; blue Britons in 'The Eagle'

There is an exceptionally interesting exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts just now, and I speak not of the Titian exhibit is has have been hawking in the press — I am sure that's plenty interesting, but I haven't seen it yet. No, I speak instead of a small collection called "The Experimental Print: Stanley William Hayter and the Artists of Atelier 17,"  which they have tucked toward the back of the Institute.

"Pegasus" by S.W. Hayter
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
"Pegasus" by Stanley William Hayter

Stanley William Hayter, if you haven't heard of him, was a printmaker from the Hackney borough of London, which also produced Alfred Hitchcock, Colin Firth, and Sid Vicious; in photos, he was a smiling man with weathered, handsome features and lanky hair that seemed somehow exhausted. He had been a chemist and a geologist for a while, but after a bout of malaria in Iran, he returned to London, where his oil firm graciously allowed him to hang some of his art. It did very well, selling out, and, in one of those momentous life decisions that seem to be the special providence of youth, the 24-year-old Hayter decided to just go ahead and make that his career. If I may abbreviate his biography quite a lot, he then managed to found the single most important printmaking studio of the 20th century, Atelier 17, which was home to artists that included Miro, Dali, Pollock, and Calder.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of engraving on 20th century art. It served dual purposes, as once democratizing art by creating relatively inexpensive multiples that were within the budget of most collectors and providing much-needed income for artists. Hayter and the artists of Atelier 17 explored engraving as its own art form, applying surrealist techniques to the creation of prints — Hayter was especially fond of simply having at the printing plate until it was, in his words, "destroyed."

The MIA's collection is a very good, diverse selection from the artists associated with Hayter, and they have a fine example of Hayter's own work, a piece called "Pegasus." It starts with a series of swooping lines that form the approximate shape of a winged horse, most recognizable in its head, which is jowly and smiling and blank-eyed, but vaguely horselike. But the swirls of Hayter's line continue, haloing out from the beast as though the artist was possessed by acute graphamania and couldn't stop outlining the creature, even as his outline became less and less recognizable.

This, in turn, is covered with a great arching blur of orange and yellow, which seems to want to fill in some of the lines and find a shape in it; it's not the shape of the Pegasus it locates, but instead something that looks to my eyes a bit like a motorcycle. Which doesn't seem that inappropriate: If you imagine Bellerophon on his tragic, rebellious ride to Mount Olympus, he is a bit like the Marlon Brando of the ancient world; all he needs is a leather jacket, some blue jeans, and a studded biker cap to complete the image. There's Zeus now, at the doors to the realm of the gods, asking Bellerophon what he's rebelling against. "What y'got?" Bellerophon answers, and, zap, out comes the gadfly.

"Perseus Beheading Medusa" by André Racz
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
"Perseus Beheading Medusa" by André Racz

Where was I? Oh yes. Hayter's studio was important, as it served as a sort of training ground and support network for generations of artists, but Hayter himself was too — artists regularly borrowed inspiration from his printmaking techniques, but also the prints he himself created. There seems to be an awful lot of Hayter in the print "Perseus Beheading Medusa" by Andre Racz, not just because it looks to antiquity for its subject — Perseus also rode the Pegasus, brother, and buy me a tequila and I will tell you of his legend — but Racz's print also seems possessed of a sort of obsessive need to outline his subject. Racz doesn't really go outside the borders of Perseus' outline, and he represents the hero with a fairly realistic silhouette.

But Racz seems to have started the drawing by sketching Perseus' skeleton, and then drawn his musculature on top of that, and then drawn some skin on top, and then the hero's armor. My girlfriend used to do this when she was a girl — when she would draw people, she'd drawn them in their underwear first and then draw clothes on top, and was always annoyed that the underwear was still visible in the picture. But Racz doesn't seem to mind, and he has colored Perseus with a broad stroke of brownish red, a color I associate with anatomical illustrations of muscles. It's as though Racz is representing Perseus' heroism by taking an X-ray of him — you see, he should have turned to stone, but he is bone and muscle instead!

I'll mention one last print, very quickly, because it really jumped out at me. It was by Calder, an illustration from a book meant to celebrate him, which contained a poem by Jacques Prevert that in French hailed the artist, best known for his mobiles, as a "sorcerer ... Of happiness." Calder illustrates this with a print that is a miracle of three colors, called "Fetes." He gives us a background of saturated red, on top of which he has put two simple geometric images, a yellow star and a black whorl. One not need know that "fete" is French for festival to get a sense of what is being represented here — in all its simplicity, it still has the explosive quality of fireworks.

Since I have broached the subject of antiquity, I'll spend a few paragraphs of a film I saw this week called "The Eagle." I couldn't resist it, because its ad campaign shows two men dressed up like Roman soldiers, and anything set in Rome is typically going to be gloriously debauched, from the assassinations and orgies of "Caligula" and "I, Claudius" to the bread and circuses of "Gladiator."

Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell in "The Eagle"
Focus Features
Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell in "The Eagle"

This is a somewhat muted affair, telling of a Italian who goes north of Hadrian's Wall in Britain to do some horseback riding in the Highlands, drink some whiskey, and look for some cheap jewelry. This is significantly complicated by the fact that the Britons don't especially want him there — they're represented in this film as murderous primitives who paint themselves blue and strut around in mud-caked mohawks — and that the jewelry he wants is the bronze eagle his father had lost years ago when he and the entire Ninth Spanish Legion were butchered by the Britons.

This is bad history, but of course it is. For one thing, the Ninth Legion never disappeared. For another, the film pretends that Hadrian's Wall was built to protect Romans from the lunacy up North, but, gosh, no, it wasn't — it was probably primarily a tool of regulating trade. The wall is still there, and people hop up and over it all the time. If you have an army of berserk Celts coming toward you, you might as well try defending yourself by erecting a shield made of sock monkeys strung together with dental floss for all the good it will do you.

But never mind history. It's a film about two guys battling an army of blue Celts, and it has its moments. The lead actor mostly glowers, and although he is a fellow named Channing Tatum, I expect every time Josh Hartnett sees an ad for the film he scratches his head and tries to remember when he made it. The other actor, a Celtic slave, is much better: He is Jamie Bell, whom most of us remember for his dedication to dancing bally in "Billy Elliot." He's still got his dancer's physique, which makes him seem credible when he's swinging a sword, but, more than that, he seems to constantly comment on the film with his eyes. And there are a few moments when his comments mostly seem to be that the film has completely lost track of its own story and isn't making sense anymore.

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Comments (2)

I saw the trailer for The Eagle and did not have the same gleeful attitude towards it you seem to have. It looked stupid, but I need reminding stupid movies can be good.

Yesterday I found myself near the MIA with a half-hour to kill, so I went to see this printmaking exhibit. Cool stuff. Thanks for the tip!