London is abuzz with Lucian Freud, following last week's opening of a major exhibition of his portraits
at the National Portrait Gallery. As Freud's etchings go under the hammer at Christie's this week, RA Magazine Blog speaks to the artist's long-time master printmaker.
Travelling to speak to Marc Balakjian, the artist printer with whom Lucian Freud made forty-seven of his later etchings (the majority of which are featured in Christie’s auction this week), it is somehow fitting to make the journey to his house on a bus that winds from Camden through Kentish Town and on further north. Studio Prints, where Marc worked for over thirty years in partnership with his wife, Dorothea Wight, was located in Queen’s Crescent, NW5 – an area in the 1970’s and 80’s that was close to the studios of many of Britain’s foremost artists. The professional and serious engagement with printmaking Studio Prints offered encouraged many painters, including Frank Auerbach, Ken Kiff, Leon Kossoff and Ron Kitaj, to make prints there.
Lucian Freud, 'Pluto Aged Twelve', 2000
Lucian Freud, 'Bella', 1987.
The walls of the Balakjian’s home are filled with pictures – alongside Marc’s own meticulous and powerful graphite drawings are images by Kiff, Paula Rego and William Tillyer. On a landing is Freud’s extraordinary etching of the whippet Pluto aged Twelve (2000). The image is a strange, disjointed arrangement with its representation of an ageing dog and an extended human hand, cut off at the wrist by the edge of the paper. It is a work that implies the complex relationship of love between man and animal.
Talking to Marc about printing the etchings is fascinating and clearly reveals how a printer’s understanding of process and medium can translate and enhance an artist’s original intentions. Marc describes how all Freud’s etchings were made from the same starting points, on thick plates, prepared with a ground he could draw into at his studio. The plates were then etched and initially proofed at Studio Prints with Freud in attendance and the edition printed once he had chosen his preferred impression.
Lucian Freud, 'Before the Fourth', 2004
Marc makes the point that had they been printed in a ‘normal way’ the etchings would have emerged more as contrasts of white and black line, rather than the resonant, tonal images we now recognise. Early on in their association Freud asked him what he could do to leave a kind of printed ‘tone’ in the images and Marc worked for many hours on the plates for works such as Bella (1987) to achieve a richer, more atmospheric effect. Marc pauses to say that he thinks that coming from a different cultural background (he is Armenian, brought up in Lebanon) helps him to approach problem solving in tangential ways. Looking at his own mezzotints (which have been exhibited in numerous biennales and museums since 1975) it is clear from their eloquent manipulations of layers and depths of black how very knowledgeable he is.
Lucian Freud, 'The Painter's Garden', 2003-04.
Freud evidently trusted his judgement and after four years or so, left Marc on his own to prepare the proofs for the editions. Many of the etchings in the auction are the result of choices made from up to twelve trial proofs and Marc shows me four different versions of Before the Fourth (2004), which range from a cleanly wiped background, through minute graduations of inking, to the darker, richer tones of the impression Freud ultimately selected.
Marc talks about certain images that gave him particular technical problems, an example of which is the densely drawn The Painter’s Garden (2003 - 4). He says that visiting the dark, rather confined space Freud was drawing in during his residency at the National Gallery, with a single strong light directed onto the plate for After Chardin (2000), helped him to understand why the white areas in the image were attracting undue attention. A problem he resolved by rolling up transparent ink [much like a translucent wash], which he wiped very lightly into the surface of the plate.
Lucian Freud, 'Woman with an Arm Tattoo' 1996.
The works in the Studio Prints Archive sale represent a twenty-five year relationship between the artist and printer that resulted in some of Freud’s most arresting and powerful etchings. The auction includes Lord Goodman in his Yellow Pyjamas (1987), the superb portrait Kai (1991-92), Eli (2002) and Marc’s own personal favourite, an image of Sue Tilley Woman with an Arm Tattoo (1996).
The Printer's Proof: Etchings by Lucian Freud from The Studio Prints Archive
, Christie’s King Street. The works are now available to view: 13 Feb 9am - 4.30pm, 14 Feb 9am - 3.30pm. The sale takes place 15 February 2012 at 10am.