Etch-a-Sketch: Etching captures modern art and modern life at the Smart Museum

Felix Bracquemonde's etching "Upper Part of a Door," photo courtesy of the Smart Museum
As the 19th century roared into the 20th, the world was opening itself up. People of relatively limited means found themselves able to take trains and caravans across the American West and ships across the Atlantic Ocean. It was an age of colonialism and proto-globalization, when explorers took pride in roaming the so-called exotic world, and urban cities expanded until they were at their bursting point. It was an age of extreme poverty and exuberant wealth, of violent war and pastoral calm. The art world was also expanding–in some cases, even the most traditional forms reflected the new concepts of how to portray landscapes and objects.

This age of expansion and chaos is shown in great breadth in the Smart Museum’s exhibit, “The ‘Writing’ of Modern Life: The Etching Revival in France, Britain, and the U.S., 1840—1950.” The images on display depict scenes ranging from the pastoral landscapes of mid-19th century France to the rugged terrain of North America; from barren colonial forts in India to the dense urban communities that were just beginning to emerge. It is divided into categories that exhibit different parts of modern life, as well as the developing ways of approaching modern art.

Poet Charles Baudelaire–who was notorious for depicting the most wretched crevices of the modern city with romantic flare–wrote in 1862, “Among the different modes of expression in the visual arts, etching appears the most literary.” Etching, which was a centuries old process, involved a sketch–a sharp, pointed implement on a soft wax tablet. The artist would then transfer the tablet to a metal plate and use an acid solution to eat away the metal, creating a permanent impression that could be easily duplicated. Because the etchings were similar to sketches, many artists would do them quickly–forming an impression of a place that was sometimes brief, and sometimes exceedingly complex.

They were some of the earliest ways to capture the ephemeral detail of the modern city–from the slums that illustrated a first edition of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” to the pensive gargoyles that watch over Paris from Notre Dame. While the etchings are mostly taken from life, some are dramatized with the Cubist elements that became popular in painting and sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century. Immigrant Clare Leighton’s “New York Breadline” (1932), a stark, geometric representation of a destitute crowd underneath advertisements, captures the suffering that the economic collapse brought upon urban areas.

The variety of etchings in the exhibit shows that in addition to difference in subject matter, artists could easily develop their own technique–the exhibit’s catalog notes that etching was often as individual as handwriting. In the ages before full-on mechanization, etching was a permanent way to capture otherwise fleeting impressions and memories, as well as common experiences. Soldiers in World War I show clouds of gunsmoke and wretched life in the trenches. Robert Sargent Austin’s “The Bell #1” (1926) displays a sharply etched bell in front of a broken wheel, with a richly depicted background. The exhibition is a tour around a world that was fresh and new even as it was collapsing on itself–the pains and daily drudging of modern life, captured in intimate detail by those who knew it best.

The ‘Writing’ of Modern Life: The Etching Revival in France, Britain, and the U.S., 1840—1950. Through April 19th. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10am-4pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11am-5pm. The Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu