Martin Gayford

Seeing everything in black and white

Plus: a trip through the home courtesy of Two Temple Place and Victoria Miro and the joy of monochromes

Two divergent approaches to printmaking are on view in an exhibition of graphic work by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud at Marlborough Fine Art, Albemarle Street. For the former, media that depend on line, such as etching, were of little interest, since — as his friend Freud would point out — Francis couldn’t draw very well. But, Freud would add, Bacon’s painting was so brilliant that he made you forget that limitation.

Bacon’s prints were essentially reproductions of his oils, signed and numbered by the artist. The etchings Freud made in the last three decades of his life were not like that at all. Though the models for the etchings were often the same as those for his paintings, his approach was entirely distinct.

Just as much time and thought went into each print as into a work on canvas (I should declare an interest, as the subject of one of those in this show, ‘Portrait Head’, 2005). Freud’s etchings, furthermore, were remarkably innovative. Working with a brilliant printmaker, Marc Balakjian, he would try out highly unorthodox techniques.

‘Self Portrait: Reflection’, 1996, is a case in point. The artist had posed for it in the mirror wearing a white shirt, but when a trial proof was pulled the large blank area at the bottom of the picture looked wrong, especially in contrast to the rest of it, which is very dark. The solution he finally found was for Balakjian to wipe that section lightly with an inky rag, so as to create a grey, mottled surface resembling cloth.

The effect is unique — as, indeed, is each individual impression, since Balakjian had to repeat the process whenever the plate went through the press. Freud’s etchings are still under-appreciated, despite the international acclaim for his work.

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