“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)

Leonard Baskin, Self Portrait, 1951
Woodcut, 52.4 x 46.5 cm

Wider Connections

Baskin biography

Cornell University—Artifex: Leonard Baskin and the Gehanna Press
Smith College—“Leonard Baskin’s Images of Woman”

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8 Responses to ““Some Source of Elixir”: Leonard Baskin’s Artist Portraits”

  1. …Pain and redemption… After reading your post I just took a look at Grünewald’s images, and I found it incredible how similar they are to his portrait by Baskin here. Pain, redemption, and generally speaking, a very precise depiction of human emotions… Many thanks for the way you link up those painters, whose intentions finally look so close.
    Regards from France

  2. tristes

  3. I have always loved Baskin’s work. Thanks for reminding me how good he is. Working that starkly with line and black/white is not easy and he never fails to produce a powerful image. I think that his sense of social justice (and injustice) is one of the things that gives his work such an emotional punch. He was a life long radical and made no secret of it. Our world is the richer for his idealism and commitment to politics as well as art.

  4. I met Leonard Baskin on several occasions and knew his representative at Gehenna Press, from which I purchased a number of books. I have always been drawn to Baskin and have a number of his prints, as well as a sculpture that appeared in the Library of Congress 50 Years of Gehenna Press. Baskin was one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met; his erudition was extraordinary, and his printmaking phenomenal. Thank you for this!

  5. Maureen, how lucky you are!

    For you, here is a good resource on Baskin’s illustrated books:
    http://artunderwraps.com/Leonard-Baskin.html

  6. I always enjoy posts of Leonard Baskin’s art. I was
    fortunate to visit with him in his studio and have dinner with him.
    I always considered Leonard to be one of my “instructors”. He and
    Alan Cober taught me to draw.

  7. I did not know of Leonard Baskin,prior to reading this blog. There is something very sincere yet haunting to his work. I was so intrigued I just googled him right now. His characters look very tortured and brooding. I’ve never seen art quite like it. I will be sure to get a book in the library about him.

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