Life, Death and Bananas

Peter Doubleday is a Senior Technician for Fashion and Sportswear Design

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Isle of The Dead

 Arnold Bocklin 1880

Outside of my role here as a Senior Technician I also have my own creative practice. I originally trained as a painter and printmaker doing a Fine Art degree and later a Photography MA. My recent work has applied traditional printmaking techniques to photographic imagery. This blog post is a look at some of this work.

Between 1880 and 1886 the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Bocklin painted five different versions of The Isle of The Dead. Four still remain though the fifth was destroyed in Berlin during World War II. It’s a kind of schmaltzy, slightly ridiculous picture to modern eyes, heavily symbolic and melodramatic, but I’ve had an obsession with it since first coming across it at art school in the late eighties. Its limpid, funereal atmosphere and sense of total stillness was like catnip to a young painter obsessed with the metaphysical works of De Chirico, Morandi, and the surrealism of Ernst and Magritte. Marcel Duchamp, the grandfather of Conceptual Art declared that Bocklin was a major influence on his art, although I suspect his tongue was firmly in his cheek when he said this. Adolf Hitler also loved the painting, although that’s no guarantee of artistic worth. Any artwork that has been so admired by such a broad range of sensibilities must contain some universal qualities.

So having had this painting rattling around in my head for over thirty years there was bound to be a point when it would make an appearance in my work. I can’t say I  made a conscious decision to make some work about the painting, it kind of arose from looking at other things. When I first moved to Cornwall from the north of England I was struck by the number of tropical and sub-tropical plants growing in parks and gardens. These plants can only survive in glasshouses in most of the rest of the country, but down here in Cornwall, the warmer climate allows them to be grown in the open. When winter comes the more delicate specimens, like banana plants, are wrapped in fleece to protect them against frost. There’s something charmingly human and a little absurd about growing plants that can only survive in our climate with the intervention of human care. I’ve since acquired some of these plants and the amount of attention they require is ridiculous, it’s almost like looking after a pet, a soft, green Tamagochi daring me to neglect it. But there is also something uplifting about these migrants, surviving and even thriving far from their normal habitat. The way these wrapped plants look in winter is fascinating, shrouded in white fleece they are like upright corpses; Lazarus is alive and well and standing in a shrubbery in Cornwall. The resemblance of these objects to Bocklin’s central figure standing in the boat is undeniable and that flash of recognition was enough to get me reaching for the camera. I quickly amassed a collection of images and set about editing to find the best ones, and over the course of 2016 a small series of prints was made.

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The Isle of The Dead

 3 colour Photo Etching on Paper 2014 15cm x 15cm

Exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show 2015

So much photography is a pursuit of the extraordinary, the exceptional, the far flung and exotic, but my artwork normally deals with the everyday, the familar, the unvalued and the overlooked. In my photographic and printmaking work I seek out these things and through the transformative nature of the medium attempt to elevate them, make them worthy of the viewers’ attention. The hope is that in their familiarity the viewer may find reflections of their own lives, that they become springboards to the inner world of the imagination and reverie. Beauty lies in the most unexpected places, the 19th century French poet and Surrealist the Comte de Lautréamont defined it as “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table”.  If you can’t find something beautiful within a few feet of your front door then you’re just not looking hard enough.

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Lazarus Triptych

Photo Etching on paper 2016, 35cm x 12cm

The Photo Etching Process

Photo Etchings fall into the intaglio (sometimes referred to as gravure) group of printmaking processes. Traditionally an intaglio print is made by incising a mark into a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. The mark can be made by simply pushing a hard metal point into the plate, which is known as drypoint, or it can be made by first coating the plate with an acid resistant wax, the image is drawn into the wax with a point to reveal the bare metal beneath and then the plate is immersed in acid and the exposed metal is eaten away to create an etched line. To make a print from the plate it is first completely covered in a thick ink, the ink is then rubbed into the etched marks and the surface cleaned with a cloth. When the inked plate is run through a press covered with a piece of damp paper the ink is transferred out of the marks and on to the paper to produce the finished print.

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Lazarus Alone

Photo Etching on paper 15cm x 15cm

In recent years a new kind of polymer etching plate has been developed to enable artists and photographers to make prints from digital or photographic imagery – Photopolymer plates consist of a thin sheet of metal with a Ultra Violet sensitive polymer coating about a millimetre thick The polymer is soft initially but it hardens when it is exposed to UV light, much like the emulsion used in the preparation of silk screens. To transfer an image to the plate a black and white acetate is digitally printed and placed in contact with the polymer plate in a UV exposure unit. The plate is now exposed to UV light which hardens the areas exposed. The polymer that is hidden behind the image remains soft. After exposure the plate is placed in a tray of tepid water and those unexposed, soft areas are washed away, these become the engraved image where the ink is held and the exposed areas become the white parts of the image.  The polymer plate is then dried and left to fully harden in sunlight for a few hours. It can then be inked up and printed like a normal metal etching plate.

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Return to The Isle of The Dead

Photo Etching on Paper 2016 40cm x 28cm

So why go to all this trouble to make prints when digital photography and the internet make it so much easier (and quicker) to make and share images? Firstly I want to say that I’m no Luddite, it was the rise of digital cameras that reinvigorated my interest in photography and none of this work could have been achieved without extensive use of Photoshop and Illustrator. But some of the great advantages of digital photography, the ability to quickly produce and distribute a large volume of imagery can also be its biggest problems – we are overwhelmed daily by countless digital images; Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, news sites and so on. The whole world is displayed for us, glowing on a screen but somehow disembodied from reality. Digital images exist in the ether but lack a physical presence, they are untouchable, lacking sensuality. Even digital prints have this same untouched essence, click, whirr and another one pops out as perfect as the one before and all others that follow.

As someone who trained as a painter this lack of physical contact with the image is a little disturbing. There is a joy in the manipulation of materials, the feel, smell and sound stimulate the senses. An etching has a physicality lacking in a digital image; the paper is embossed, has texture, the ink sits on the surface and has a lustre and a faint oily smell. Making a single large print may take up to a couple of hours work, it’s a small antidote to the “throwaway” culture we inhabit. To make a new plate may take weeks of preparatory work so care needs to be taken with the selection of each image, I may be looking at it for a long time, but there is a satisfaction in this absorbtion. Each print requires a whole process of edits and decision making, sometimes missteps happen, plates don’t always produce what you expect, sometimes this is disappointing and may need remaking but sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised – always be open to happy accidents (but if anyone asks say you intended it to be like that!). Plates and paper aren’t cheap and this introduces a level of risk, there is a pleasure in risk, especially when it pays off. That moment of tension as the pressed paper is lifted from the plate and the relief and satisfaction as a successful print is revealed is what drives printmakers forward.

An etching is not just an image on a surface, rather it is an image that has become a physical object, and as someone whose work deals with the meaning of objects I find there is a pleasing circularity in this idea.

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Under Suspicion

Hand Tinted Photo Etching on Paper 2016 10cm x 10cm

If you would like to see more of Peter’s work, please visit his website www.bemusement.co.uk.

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