Tamarind Papers



Macho the Cock

Agathe Sorel

Agathe Sorel was born in Hungary, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, and emigrated to England following the 1956 uprising. She completed her art training with a year at Camberwell School of Art, followed by two years at Atelier 17 in Paris from 1958 to 1960. Grounded in the orthodoxy of social realism, her encounter with Hayter was traumatic:


Hayter's forceful intervention was rather upsetting initially. I did all the experiments which were required, but I couldn't, at that time, accept these procedures intellectually. I didn't fully understand the implications. Although there were some very good artists working there at the time, a lot of them worked in a rather similar way, adapting Bill Hayter's recipes. I was fighting against this while at the same time being greatly influenced by Hayter's personality. Actually I'm much more inspired by him now, by his work, and I suppose I have now gained the maturity to accept some of his ideas, having come to understand them, strangely, through a different route.

Upon Sorel's return to England, she established a studio in London, where her album inspired by Jean Genet's Le Balcon was published in 1965. The title page of this work combines line engraving, photoengraving, and color aquatint. In other prints of the period, she combined burin engraving, imprints from hammered nails, and images directly offset from traditional Greek votive tablets of silvered copper. A more substantial use of photo-etching can be seen in her Dark Satanic Mills made around 1972. Like Michael Rothenstein at this time, her interest in collaging photographic images through photo-engraving was triggered by the work of Rauschenberg. However, Dark Satanic Mills, with its intriguing perspectival vistas, has a spatial ambiguity compounded by the manner in which a central form, derived from one of her earlier space engravings, appears to hover somewhat in front of the picture plane. It is also one of the first to reflect her developing study of optics, geometry, and the psychology of perception. In the previous decade, Hayter had been pursuing similar researches; this is reflected in a chapter he contributed to Gyorgy Kepes's Vision + Value31 in the revision of the third edition of New Ways of Gravure, as well as in many paintings and prints of his last two decades.

Sorel's Roots is an engraving on plastic which features small areas of manipulated inking. The starting point was a series of drawings of the twisted, bleached roots of ancient fig trees. Surface-printed from plastic plates in conscious mimicry of lino or woodblocks, the roots combine with two geometric forms, printed both from the intaglio and the surface. Some of the intaglio is cut by drypoint, but other lines are mechanically engraved with a router, while parts of the forms are roughened by a drill bearing a carborundum stone, which is a car body repair tool. Surface inking enlivens the color and texture of the two asymmetrical volcanic stones in the foreground. As in Dark Satanic Mills, the forms are unconfined by a rectangle and the work pays affectionate homage to Rothenstein's woodcut and collage prints of the early 1960s, while" nevertheless remaining firmly rooted in the artist's own sources and development.

Sorel's space engravings are a unique aspect of her art-perspex sculptures which fuse the properties of engraving with three-dimensional form. In them she is able to combine organic, geometric, and associational elements. In the tradition of Naum Gabo and Moholy Nagy, these are constructivist in derivation, an art of transparent open volumes, whose translucency permits the manipulation of actual rather than virtual light. Some of the sculptures have elements which hang or float, allowing gentle kinetic movement, shifting polychromatic shadows, and reflections. Doubling apparent volumes and introducing new symmetries, these extended images are suggestive of time, duration, and relativity. These early space engravings, made between 1970 and 1974, use the engraved line to evoke the possibilities of space through axonometric projection, while other engraved contours subvert Euclidean geometry and are themselves transformed as our viewpoint shifts.

It is for her prints and space engravings, rather than for her paintings, that Agathe Sorel's work is best known. Yet her drawings, watercolors, and collages are an essential aspect of it and come from her annual summer migration to the subtropical island of Lanzarote in the Canaries, which provides the catalyst and stimulus to fuel the longer months of making and editioning in studio and workshop. A recent space engraving. Macho the Cockerel [Colourplate V, page 55], is a perspex and welded steel sculpture whose genesis—on a cliff above the horseshoe Lanzarote bay—was the confrontation between a retinue of noisy hens and a cockerel atop an elaborately rigged motorbike, festooned with mirrors, chrome, and yellow-and-scarlet custom sprayed decoration. Photographed from the rear, the intersecting arches of handlebars and frame become formal, structural elements. Schematic rendering by engraved lines of the tire treads and seat are read, in consequence of the transparency of the sculptural ground, as virtual line in space. As the eye of the viewer moves, optical shifts occur due to the thickness of the material, which acts as a prism. The reflections of the cock's comb, cloned in formalized projection in each of the flanking mirrors, give rise to additional possibilities. By turning the handlebars, at a certain point both crimson comb and its reflection are caught in real mirror-glass disks. The representation of three dimensional imagery on two-dimensional surfaces paradoxically evokes the theoretical possibility of a fourth dimension. Finally, the main transparent elements are constructed to pivot through ninety degrees, hence what is reflected must operate through all these permutations. THE ARTISTS DISCUSSED HERE have two things in common: their independence and their search for innovation and renewal in printmaking. Additionally, as practitioners in drawing, painting, or sculpture, they all have been prepared to challenge and transgress the artificial frontiers of craft conventions. Apart from this, they differ dramatically. Hayter left no 'school' in England. But the Atelier 17 ideal, the rejection of the artist as lone wolf in favor of the collaborative workshop, with its free-ranging exchange of ideas, philosophy, method, and process, has left its imprint upon printmaking in Britain.

Buckland-Wright's Etching and Engraving was undoubtedly as influential as New Ways of Gravure in bringing the best of avant-garde European printmaking to the notice of young English artists. If Buckland-Wright's own most innovative phase was short-lived, his book is nevertheless a powerful testimony to his mentor. Trevelyan and Gross were influential artist-printmakers teaching respectively at the Royal College of Art and the Slade School at a crucial period in British postwar art. Michael Rothenstein and Agathe Sorel are also influential teachers. Anthony Gross was never an associate of Atelier 17. He was, with Hayter, the other significant English artist of the School of Paris; a long-standing friend, who grew far closer to Hayter as he reached full maturity. The increased scale and powerful structural syntax of the landscape etchings from mid-1950 through the 1960s are closely related to the parallel development of his canvases, and present an interesting counterpart to Hayter's extended water series. Hayter's practice and renewal of gravure invoked automatism of line, a strict Surrealist orthodoxy consciously harnessed and developed to fuse with concepts and themes which were, by turn, mythic and classical or fed by research in optics, kinetics, and alternative geometries. The surrealism of Hayter united intuitive and intellectual content, being simultaneously avant-garde yet rooted in the tradition of European classicism: it was predominantly anti-realist.

By contrast, Michael Rothenstein is a realist whose method depends upon collecting, collaging, and combining all that delights or interests him in the visual, tactile world of images, surfaces, and objects. In the twin fields of relief and combination prints, he has had a major impact upon the history of the medium in this half-century. The theoretical interests of Hayter have their complement in works like Agathe Sorel's space engravings. Yet Sorel is at the same time impelled to retain organic and associational elements and combine these with her interests and researches into abstract configurations of space. As Buckland-Wright wrote in 1953: "Aesthetics cannot be relegated to a water-tight compartment. They are part and parcel of the age, and coloured by the intellectual processes and scientific discoveries of that age. There is no hard and fast line to be drawn between art and intellect or art and science. Art is the synthesis of all human, mental, emotional and psychic experience." In Britain the formation of the Printmakers Council in 1965, with Anthony Gross as its first president and Trevelyan, Rothenstein, and Sorel all active in its leadership, has provided a fulcrum for group activity and professional discourse. The diversity and richness of printmaking today and the younger generation of highly creative artist printmakers—not disciples—is Hayter's true legacy in England.

30 Agathe Sorel, cited note 21.
31 Gyorgy Kepes, Vision + Value: The Nature and
Art of Motion (New York: Braziller and London:
Studio Vista, 1965).