The art of drawing close to death

Symptoms of decay: Scarabattolo, one of Érik Desmazières's etchings

Symptoms of decay: Scarabattolo, one of Érik Desmazières's etchings


THANATOLOGY:  A Cabinet of Rarities: Antiquarian Obsessions and the Spell of Death, Prints by Érik Desmazières with
text by Patrick Mauriès, translated by Ruth Sharman, Thames & Hudson, 110pp, £35

To achieve mental balance in the dark days after Yuletide joy and commercial surfeit, there is nothing like a bit of thanatology. Eros, like Christmas parties, is a transient pleasure; most people believe that death is permanent. This elegantly macabre book is a stimulating memento mori; the grin of the skull on the cover is grimly hilarious. After the feast and the reckoning, the Book of Proverbs offers consolation, as practically as usual, that “Death pays all debts”. As Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th-century religious doctor of medicine and man of letters, observed: “Death cures all ills.” Andrew Marvell wrote in a poem to his coy mistress, “The grave’s a fine and private place”, though added, on the debit side, “but none, I think, do there embrace”.

There have always been morbid connoisseurs with misgivings. In Keats’s words, they are “half in love with easeful death”. In Europe since the 16th century, a few collectors of sufficient leisure, imagination and resources have filled cabinets, their personal museums, with an orderly clutter of rare and curious animal, vegetable and mineral specimens: bones, fossils, corals and shells, for example, organic relics mummified or preserved in wax, and all sorts of artistic artefacts, the fragile and the eternal, souvenirs of life and omens of death, representing the whole world in miniature, on shelves in open cupboards and pigeonholes.

They have the conservator they deserve in Érik Desmazières, master printmaker. He was born in Morocco, the son of a French diplomat, and educated in Paris to follow suit, but abandoned the civil service for art. Having learned the difficult technicalities of printmaking, he has specialised in close-up studies of the contents of cabinets of curiosities, in sombre black and grey, sometimes subtly enhanced with aquatint, gouache and roulette, an instrument that produces lines of tiny holes.

In his text, Patrick Mauriès contrasts Desmazières with the so-called conceptual artists of today, whose main concerns in art colleges seem to be public relations and marketing. Desmazières can draw with pen and chalk, with exquisite precision, respecting the conventional rules of perspective and the principles of proportion and composition. In his prints, even the most fancifully elaborate decorations are sustained by stable foundations.

“Desmazières’s technique – drawing the etching needle through the prepared ground, exposing the copper plate beneath the bite of the acid – is out of step with his time,” Mauriès writes, “since it refuses to accommodate the type of blunt self-expression that characterises much contemporary art.”

Mastery of line

Expanding his eulogy, Mauriès compares Desmazières with Dürer, who “compensated for the lack of colour in his prints through his command of line, which he employed to express ‘shade, light, radiance, projections,’ and which permitted him to ‘paint’ that which cannot be painted: fire, thunder, lightning, a ray of light or shadow on a wall. Through his mastery of line, the printmaker becomes a geometer, a calligrapher of space. And if there is one theme that is central to Desmazières’s etchings and illustrations, it is his almost obsessive focus on construction and on the mapping out of space.”

At the same time, the artist has such an omnivorous appetite for bizarre details and is so fascinated by the most minute symptoms of decay that three of the panoramas reproduced here, Scarabattolo, Wunderkammer and Rembrandt’s Kunstkammer, require the unfolding of extrawide pages.

It may be gratifying to learn that even on the most heroic scale his works are created on delicate Fabiano Roma blue laid paper, 18th-century ivory laid paper and Arches satin vellum. His style is realistic; his effects are romantically melancholy.

Between 1975 and 2010 he produced more than 200 prints, exhibited in numerous galleries in Europe and the United States and illustrated books by Heinrich von Kleist, Jorge Luis Borges and Sir Thomas Browne. It is easy to understand how his classical commitment earned him membership of the Académie des Beaux Arts. Mauriès writes:

Medieval schools distinguished between two types of mind: the metaphysical, capable of dealing with incorporeal concepts such as angels or the void; and its opposite, the mathematical, incapable of apprehending anything other than objects, or of thinking beyond what is quantifiable (mathematical minds were both poor at metaphysics and prone to melancholy). Paradoxically, the imagination – which since the Age of Romanticism has been regarded as a liberating, creative impulse – was viewed in medieval times as limiting, associated with temperaments that were unable to transcend the measurable world and escape the prison of what they see.

Mauriès digresses further from his consideration of graphic art to show how Sir Thomas Browne’s peculiar genius enabled him to rise above divisive categories. “He understood most European languages”, having studied at Montpellier, Padua and Leiden, with special interest in theology and medicine, which he practised as a physician when he finally settled in Norfolk. The first of his few books was called Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor). Browne was absorbed by science but also in speculating beyond it.

He wrote on urn burial, the mystic symbolism of the number five and, published posthumously, on “vulgar errors” and Christian morals. Sir Thomas assembled his own cabinet of curiosities, and then even described the weird contents of a cabinet that did not actually exist, thus anticipating and influencing the fantastic, labyrinthine universe of Borges, as well as the prints of Desmazières.

A Cabinet of Rarities provokes a titillation of fear, which is not unpleasant when safely enclosed by hard covers.

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