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Deconstructing a 3-plate etching & aquatint by Hans Figura

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Here is a view of Dordrecht, Holland, made in 1930 by Hans Figura (Austrian, 1898–1978).

Figura was one of the leading Austrian printmakers of the early 20th century who specialized in color etchings of European and North American scenes. He was influenced by Luigi Kasimir (1881–1962), pioneer of this difficult process.

We had the good fortune of finding this print– and the three original zinc plates from which it was printed– at separate auctions. The plates were accompanied by several sheets of notes and diagrams which help in understanding some aspects of the planning and execution of the print.

First, a bit of speculation: Let’s assume that Figura made photographs and sketches of this approximate scene during his 1930 trip to Holland, France, and Switzerland. It is unlikely that such a beautifully composed arrangement appeared ready-made before his eyes. More likely, he saw these elements in near proximity, and brought them together in on-the-spot sketches, or, later, in studio drawings. His on-the-spot sketches might have been in pencil with color notations, or he might have worked directly with color. There would have been one highly finished color drawing prior to making the plates. Gouache or pastel would have served the purpose better than watercolor or oil paint. We know that Luigi Kasimir made his final studies with pastel, so let’s suppose Figura did likewise.

Next came the strategic decisions that would place different bits of information on each of the three zinc plates.

 

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Here is plate #1. The grey shapes are aquatint biting, which means that they have a fine, even, pitted texture to hold ink. The gold areas are smooth, and meant to be free of ink. (The actual plates appear more evenly grey than these photos, which were manipulated to help us see the different surfaces.)

 

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Here is a detail from Plate #1, showing the fine aquatint texture a little more clearly. The “scratches” you see in the gold areas are only in the metal patina. They have no physical depth that would hold ink.

Do you see that rougher texture of streaking just above/right of center? That was made with a roulette, a tiny, hard steel wheel that can roll rows of lines into the softer zinc.

 

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Here is Figura’s diagram for Plate #1, showing us that a selection of ink mixtures numbered 1 through 5 were wiped onto specific areas of the plate. I say “mixtures,” because the resulting colors are more subtle than any straight from the tube or can.

 

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Here is Plate #2. This time the sky is blank, while the foreground water clearly shows different depths of aquatint biting to print lighter or darker reflections.

 

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This is a detail from Plate #2. The pale halo that you see around the texture-shapes is only patina, and has no effect on the printed edges.

 

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Here is Figura’s diagram for Plate #2, showing the placement of ink mixtures 6 through 12.

 

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This is Plate #3. It shows no aquatint texture, only etched lines. While the first two plates supplied solid tone-shapes, the third plate supplies more linear detail.

 

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This is a detail of Plate #3.

 

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And here’s the diagram for Plate #3, showing the placement of colors #12 and #13. (Color #13 is black, perhaps the only one that came straight from the tube or can.)

 

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Here is the finished print with margins. A notation at bottom/left says: 256: Dordrecht. We believe 256 is an opus number– Figura’s 256th published print.

 

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A detail from the printed work, showing the lovely interaction of etched line and aquatint tone.

 

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The water in this detail shows smooth transitions between grey and tan, the result of very skillful ink wiping.

 

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This detail shows a beautifully abstract passage. Note that the lightest tone (gulls and ice) are the bare, tan paper.

 

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This note sheet shows the printing history of “Dordrecht.” A production of this sort demands extraordinary technical skill,  and like any printmaker doing such complex and prolific work, Figura had help.

The first impressions were printed by ??? Pfeifer on December 29, 1930. Franz Schönikle did the April 9, 1933 printing. Alois Schönikle (father, brother or son?) did several of the subsequent printings. 

The final recorded printing of 11 impressions was done on November 5, 1957.

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PS: The plates and notes were contained in this wrapper, which itself is a pale, printed impression. Perhaps the plates were not re-inked for this use, but residual ink was adequate to identify the project.

 

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Thanks for looking at and reading this post! This set of plates and print will soon be on display at our Harrisburg gallery in the Midtown Scholar Bookstore. They are not for sale, but a dozen other Figura etchings will soon be available for purchase at the gallery and on this site.