“Some Source of Elixir”: Leonard Baskin’s Artist Portraits
By LIZ HAGER
Leonard Baskin, Wiliam Blake, 1962
Etching, 45 x 37.5 cm
VR’s recent post on “The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art” prompted my renewed interest in Leonard Baskin. Those crows were just the tip of the iceberg!
Leonard Baskin, Edvard Munch, 1964
Etching, 30 x 45 cm
Baskin (1922-2000) first came into public view in 1952 as a printmaker. His creative expression was deeply influenced by rabinical training, a creative kinship with William Blake, and Gothic and early Renaissance art. Given these, perhaps it was inevitable that he would stake out a territory in his art very much in opposition to the reigning style of the time, Abstract Expressionism. And though Baskin went on to become a reknown sculptor, his stark black and white prints remain for me most emblematic of his distinctive legacy.
Leonard Baskin, Thomas Eakins, 1964
Etching, 45 x 33.5 cm
Baskin’s prints call forth a figurative world filled with introspection and brooding, with pain, transformation and, ultimately redemption. Even his choice of medium was ruled by this cosmos, for prints are made by incising a wound upon the block or plate. Baskin evoked the commonality of our suffering in endless ways, even through the most benign of subject matter.
Leonard Baskin, Gericault, 1969
Etching, 42.5 x 35 cm
Leonard Baskin, Mathias Grünewald, 1969
Etching, 45 x 37.5 cm
His close friend, poet Ted Hughes, is particularly eloquent on the subject:
This startling, sinister beauty, characteristic of all his works, cannot easily be called “content.” Yet it is something more than style, something other than the masterful technical expertise that gives his image the foot-poundage of its striking power and penetration. The subject matter of his image may shock us, and his phenomenal technique may overpower us, but this other thing does not attack in any way. It summons us very quietly. But more and more strongly. In the end it makes us seek his work out as if we needed it, and makes us cherish it, as some source of elixir, long after more documentary or photographic evidence of “our common suffering” has become a sad blur.
—Ted Hughes, “The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly,” (from The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin: A Catalogue Raisonne 1948-1983)