This is one of a group of thirty-three prints in Tate’s collection (Tate P07948–P07980) by the German artist Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze). Each print features a monochromatic design in black ink on ivory-coloured paper. The prints range in size from 324 x 248 mm to just 60 x 98 mm, and the smaller compositions are mostly printed at the centre of the sheets. While some of the compositions bear a resemblance to landscapes (Tate P07948), ships (Tate P07962) or plants (Tate P07970), the majority are more elusive. Some suggest figurative shapes, impressions of movement or organic forms, while others tend towards the completely abstract. What unites the group stylistically is the delicacy of the designs, with echoes of intricate webs or microscopic biological worlds formed from the slender, woven lines.
Wols most likely produced the plates for these etchings between 1945 and 1951 (Lewison 2015, p.301), and many were made to illustrate special editions of literary works by authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Jean Paulhan and René de Solier. Wols produced the plates using the etching process, and in some cases also used drypoint, which gives a fuzzed effect to the lines. This is due to the fact that the incisions made in the metal plate using a needle cause the excess metal to be pushed up and deposited along the sides of the carved lines, forming a burr where ink can collect and transfer to the paper more readily during printing. The art historian Will Grohmann, who was Wols’s contemporary, records that the artist used a gramophone needle among other instruments to incise his plates (Grohmann 1959, p.115).
It was only after Wols’s death in 1951 that his etchings were collected, printed and published in editions by his widow Gréty Wols. In 2015 art historian Jeremy Lewison published the results of his thorough investigation to establish more concrete timelines and production information for groups of Wols’s etchings held in collections around the world (Lewison 2015). This was partly to update information in the catalogue entry Lewison had written for Tate’s group in 1983 (published in The Tate Gallery 1982–84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wols-no-title-p07948, accessed 26 September 2018). Unusually, the prints in the Tate group are unnumbered and are not recorded elsewhere, making it difficult to establish to which edition they belong. By noting which plates were available at the times of the different publications and by examining the prints themselves, Lewison argues that they were either proofs or ‘not for sale’ prints made in advance of the 1962 edition of Wols’s etchings (Lewison 2015, p.309). This would certainly account for the lack of numbering. While the Tate group has two more prints than the earlier editions, one plate previously included in other editions had been lost, and so the set cannot be said to be complete.
The later date suggested by Lewison may explain the rather faint nature of the printing in the Tate group. Repeated printing would wear the plates down significantly over time and inadequate storage has led to extraneous scratches which can be seen in the final 1962 edition. The Tate group, therefore, is likely the result of the printer’s effort to eliminate these unwanted marks by using less ink and the less absorbent Japan paper (Lewison 2015, p.310). The scratches are indeed not visible in the final printing, but nor are some of the finer parts of the design. A comparison of Tate P07957 with the same plate printed and published in Wols’s lifetime, held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, illustrates this difference most strikingly (see https://www.moma.org/collection/works/16456, accessed 26 September 2018). Also less obvious in the Tate prints are the rich, velvety lines associated with the drypoint technique.
Wols’s own life was chaotic due to struggles with poverty and alcoholism. Having moved to Paris in 1936, he was interned as a German national following the outbreak of the Second World War. These biographical details, coupled with the use of some of the etchings to accompany works of existentialist literature, has previously led to their interpretation as expressions of human vulnerability or psychological drama. The art historian Werner Haftmann saw Wols’s work in this way, regarding each drawing or etching as a subconscious attempt to communicate the trauma of his personal life and contemporary events: ‘What this is is a trance-like sprinkling, scribbling ... It borders in its peripheral areas on pure psychography.’ (Werner Haftmann, Malerei im 20. Jahrhundert, Munich 1954, p.463.) Each work, however, seems far more rooted in its own construction: the abstract incision-making is reflective of Wols’s informal, spontaneous working methods in translating the image onto his medium. But unlike the ‘psychography’ suggested by Haftmann or the practice of automatic drawing employed by the surrealists, whereby the hand expresses the subconscious by being allowed to move ‘randomly’ across the paper, Wols retains a graphic precision in his mark-making, preventing the designs from becoming wholly random.
Wols’s later work is often seen in the context of developments in gestural abstraction, both in Paris and with the abstract expressionists in New York, and even as a bridge from the surrealists, with whom Wols associated in his early career (see Starr Figura, ‘Wols’, in Deborah Wye (ed.), Artists and Prints: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York 2004, p.139). The delicacy of incision in these small works, however, is also testament to the artist’s calculated construction of lines and forms. The small size of the prints invites close examination, and the experience of encountering one adheres to Wols’s own assertion that ‘A tiny sheet of paper can contain the world’ (Wols, Aphorisms and Pictures, Gillingham 1971, p.32).
Will Grohmann, ‘Das Graphische Werk von Wols’, Quadrum, vol.6, 1959, pp.95–118 (with reproductions).
Toby Kamps, ‘Seeing Wols’, in Wols: Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen 2013, pp.55–67.
Jeremy Lewison, ‘Wols Problems’, Art Quarterly, vol.33, no.3, September 2015, pp.294–313.
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P07978 [from] Complete set of untitled etchings
c.1942–1951 [P07948-P07980; complete]
Thirty-three etchings and drypoints in range 2 3/4 × 4–12 1/4 × 9 1/8 (64 × 102–324 × 248) on thin ivory Japan paper approximately 15 × 10 1/4 (381 × 267), printed and published posthumously by the artist's widow (edition size and printer not known)
Purchased from Reiss Cohen Inc., New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Lit: Will Grohmann, ‘Das Graphische Werk von Wols’, Quadrum, 6, 1959, pp.95–118 (repr. with the exception of no.XXXV)
According to Grohmann, at the time of Wols's death he left behind a number of copper plates which he had been working on since c.1942. He states that the exact number of these plates cannot be established since a number were ruined or lost. In 1954 Wols's widow commissioned the printing of thirty-five plates in an edition of 6. At the time of Grohmann's article three of these were in private collections and two belonged to the widow and to the artist's brother. They were printed on ivory coloured Velin Arches and stamped with the stamp of the estate. In addition one set was made which did not bear the stamp of the estate and was given to a former schoolfriend of the artist. Some of these plates had been printed during the artist's lifetime as illustrations to texts by Sartre, de Solier, Bryen and Artaud. In 1955 the artist's widow commissioned the printing of a further 10 sets on a thicker white paper. Three plates from the original set, according to Grohmann, were missing at the time of this printing, nos. X, XXIII and XXVII. These were printed by Georges Visat in Paris and numbered from 1 to 10. Each sheet was numbered in roman numerals and the set was numbered in arabic numerals. According to Dr Ewald Rathke (letter of 9 October 1985), a further edition was printed in 1962 by Lacourière et Frelaut, Paris in an edition of 50, each sheet stamped on the back with the stamp of the estate and numbered on the front out of 50. This edition contained impressions from the plates which Grohmann thought had been destroyed and included one plate which Grohmann had not recorded.
It is not possible to define exactly which edition P07948-P07980 come from. They are printed on thin, ivory Japan paper and the set includes etching no.x. Therefore it cannot belong to the edition of 1955. The prints do not bear any inscriptions or stamps which suggests that they may be from the edition of 1953, and in particular be the set of prints given to a schoolfriend of Wols (see Grohmann, pp.95–6). However, Grohmann does not indicate that this set was printed on paper other than Velin Arches. The plates themselves are hard to date. According to Grohmann twenty were made before 1949.
The prints are in the manner of Wols's late works and are very finely and delicately etched. They depict images suggestive of botanical and biological forms as well as of faces, ships and landscapes.
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986