Monday, 16 January 2012

Perfectionism is Vanity: Peter Lazarov

This interview with wood engraver Peter Lazarov comes from the series I recorded with book artists living in the Netherlands during December. The full series can be read in the forthcoming issue of Printmaking Today

I first saw Peter Lazarov’s wood engravings in a monograph from the Endgrain series published by Barbarian Press in Canada (Endgrain Editions 3: Peter Lazarov, 2003). Introducing Lazarov’s prints, Crispin Elsted described ‘an element of abstraction’ and the ‘sheer technical finesse’ which ‘moved the idiom into areas we had not imagined.’ 

Lazarov’s encounter with Barbarian Press inspired him to establish his own imprint in 2002. PEPELpress now has an impressive back catalogue of titles, and Lazarov revels in the book form, believing that ‘a print within a wider cultural context makes more sense than one seen alone’. Two recent books respond to works in other media: Siegfried’s Passion (after Richard Wagner’s opera Siegfried, 2008) and Prospero's Books (2011). Since the Barbarian's homage, he's also been celebrated in the trade publication De prentkunst van Peter Lazarov, available from Stichting Nobilis.

Siegfried’s Passion 

NC: When did you first move to the Netherlands?

I moved here in 1990, knowing next to nothing about fine press books. In socialist Bulgaria no such phenomenon existed; small presses were always associated with anti-government activities. . . so although I had almost ten years experience in wood engraving, it was always hand-printing, not using a press.
When I arrived I got acquainted with a group of ex libris collectors and, making engravings for them, I came in contact with printers. My first illustrations for a fine press book were for Arethusa pers in Baarn, in 1991. Many more followed in the next decade.
Siegfried’s Passion 

NC: The binding structures and paper of your recent books appear to be influenced by Japanese traditions.

The phenomenon of ‘paper’ was barely known to me before my first encounter with Japanese papermaking during a workshop on mokuhan (Japanese watercolour woodblock printmaking) in 2000. I made my first pieces at the studio of Okuda-san, near Nagasawa.
Three years later, I applied for an artist’s residency at Awagamy Factory, Awa-Yamakawa, Tokushima. There I got the chance to learn the craft in the traditional way from the late Fujimory-san. My residency was dedicated to making paper for my first two PEPELpress books – RubbingRoads and Shoji. The covers of both books are two-layered kozo with watermarks related to the images in the books.
The difference between my creative life before and after Japan was like ‘knowing and not knowing’. Learning a new craft opens so many possibilities of a practical nature, but it also enriches the image-making process. Non-European concepts of fragmentation and ‘seeming misbalance’ entered my work, and I still employ them today. 
NC: I see you’ve developed a close connection with Guanlan Printbase, Shenzhen, China. 

The artist printmaker Hao Qiang invited me to work in the newly established printbase a year ago, when we met during the 32nd Congress for ex libris and small prints in Beijing.    

The studio setting is a former industrial plant situated between two small villages (old Hakka-style houses dating from c. 1700), surrounded by a wall. I felt as if I was living in the Forbidden City in Beijing, protected from the outside world and destined for glory.
I have not words enough to describe the visiting Chinese artists, whose generous friendship has been a real gift: Mr Zhao (who had been studying in France in the 1960s - I had to revive my school French again), Mr Woo (with his cheerful and generous Mongolian spirit), and Professor Zhan (a great karaoke talent) with whom we plotted an exhibition in Shanghai ... They represent the generation growing up in the turbulent times around the Cultural Revolution. Their preference is for figurative work, landscape and still life, but their trust in tradition, their genuine emotion and superb craftsmanship makes looking at their prints an engaging experience.

Guanlan was more than ‘yet another artist-in-residence programme’ for me. I had two memorable months filled with positive energy, new friendships, productive work for which I got total support, and last but not least excellent food every day. I call this place ‘printmaker’s paradise’. 

Half-way through my stay I took the place of a Chinese artist who was sharing studio with Hong and that was the beginning of a 'karaoke-bar-like' working process, which lasted till the very end of my stay there. We were singing his Korean Pop songs all the time while working and our long hours of sharing music, smoking, Tsingtao beer, mosquito bites, laughter, late-night-spicy-noodles and funny/serious conversations turned out to be an unforgettable experience for me.

NC: Do you generally work with music in the background? 

I value music higher than any other form of art because of its innocence. Visual art employs images which need to be deciphered and understood and not just perceived. Music goes directly into our bloodstream. I like the music of Wagner and it is inevitable that my books and prints will declare this. After Siegfried’s Passion, another one, Parsifal, will be ready for 2013, the Wagner year.

NC: Is Guanlan Printbase equipped with facilities for printing wood engravings? Has access to the studios there changed your work?

Wood engraving is one of the few printmaking techniques which fall outside the rich Chinese tradition. Chinese artists and collectors find it not only ‘exotic’ but appealing because of the intricate detail. Despite the fact that nowadays the Chinese have become ‘the lords of fake’ (mass producing or faking anything: cars, old masters’ paintings, computers, cell phones, fashion accessories, cigarettes …) they genuinely cherish detailed and technically advanced works. Virtuosity and craftsmanship are among the oldest virtues in Chinese culture. 

The Printbase is equipped with presses for all major techniques: intaglio, relief, lithography and silkscreen. Butt was not equipped for printing wood engravings in the European sense, with Korrexes or Vandercooks. So they printed everything by hand from the woodblocks or on an etching press when I engraved something on plastic. And this last option is what Guanlan gave to me – the opportunity to experiment with large format engravings on plastic. I engraved two large MDF and plastic blocks ... gosh that was so hard! They were printed by my assistant Liu Li, or Lilly as I called her. It was touching to see this tiny girl printing my large blocks on sheets of paper bigger than herself.

 Prospero's Books

NC: How did the idea for Prospero's Books come about? Does it visually reference Peter Greenaway's film (1991), or have you used the text as a starting point for your own ideas? 

A friend of mine, Sieds de Boer, came up with the idea of making a semi-commercial book with the Dutch translation of The Tempest accompanied by Peter Greenaway's text, and contacted him asking for a permission. He approached me with a proposal to make illustrations for his edition. I agreed, with the request that I would make my own limited edition only with his text, which is absolutely fascinating. 

My intention wasn’t to map the images of the film nor to illustrate the books mentioned in the imaginary catalogue of Prospero’s books. It was rather to give a slice of Prospero’s mind… to make a movie on my own. That’s why the book has a strange binding in the middle of the pages, leaving the textual part separated from the images.

NC: I notice you mix silkscreen and wood engraving in the book. In terms of printing the text silkscreen, this interests me because wood engraving is often cited as the ideal 'sister medium' to letterpress - was there a particular reason for not using lead type here?

Why silkscreen? For purely practical reasons. If I wanted this book ever to be made, I had to think of affordable ways to do it. I know very well that if all the illustrations were wood engravings or woodcuts the whole would look much better. The truth is that I didn’t have any more time and resources to spend. The same goes for all my projects. I believe that images are more important than execution. Professional perfectionism is great but it is also vanity. If I often spend a lot of time on wood engravings, it is not to show off my skills, but because it is the most practical technique for the project at hand.

I am not a letterpress expert – it is too damn difficult and, let’s face it, lead type has outlived its purpose. Any art has only one purpose – to be integral part of the big culture of the moment. Hegel himself pointed out that the living Art could be only contemporary, not historical (this, of course, was a heated debate between Crispin [Elsted] and I… But we are still good friends! He wants me to illustrate an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphosis for Barbarian Press.

From the Rivers to the Sea

If you travel to Newcastle by train, one of the first things you see as you step onto the platform is a caustic yellow sign marked with an 'M' which points the way to the city's Metro system.

The Metro was introduced to Newcastle in 1980. Although planners had the foresight to commission Margaret Calvert to design a typeface for the transport system, none of the Metro architecture demonstrates the decade's flamboyance and extroversion. Most stops are cursed with a determined, squat functionality, and an ominous Cretan gloom pervades the tunnels that run beneath the city centre. In recent years Tyne and Wear Metro have made dramatic improvements to the stations by introducing a number of public art works.

Hilary Paynter was commissioned to produce a work for the Central Station stop in 2004. Paynter is one of Britain's leading wood engravers, and the choice of artist was no doubt inspired by the memory of Thomas Bewick, one of Newcastle's more famous cultural exports, whose 250th anniversary fell in 2003.

Paynter describes the station as 'a fabulous commission to work on'. She was given a flying lesson so that she could get an overhead view of the landscapes and cityscapes through which the river and the Metro pass. The resulting panoramic wood engraving From the Rivers to the Sea does not miss a single historical or geographical detail from the region. 

Paynter's work pursues ‘the idea of the Metro as a journey in and out of the past and the richness of historical context’. The progressive panels show ‘changes in the landscape, including those wrought by man and, in their turn, those changes wrought within man’. The work moves from depicting from tiny natural details, reminiscent of Bewick's subject-matter, such as a snail making its way through wild grasses, to monumental buildings and wide Northumbrian views. One panel honours the architecture left behind by 20th-century mining and shipping industries, another the grand sweep of Newcastle's neoclassical streets laid out by John Dobson in the 19th century. Others reach even further back to the city's past.

In the panels shown below, a bird's eye view of the mouth of the River Tyne flowing into the North Sea has a gleeful catfish superimposed on it. Intrigued by this image, I emailed Paynter to ask about the different elements. She replied that her 'ideas entwined and led to related themes' throughout the commission, explaining that this panel refers to the Roman remains at Wallsend (or 'Segedunum' to the Romans). 'The view of the Tyne is from a satellite image. It resembled a catfish, inspiring the next bit of the design. There was an aquarium there, which was another reference. Then, in the reconstruction of the Roman baths at the site, there were murals of fish. ... I love engraving old stone. The statue of Fortuna in the niche was discovered on site.'

Paynter's wood engravings were printed and then the images applied to vitreous white enamel panels. Whether the objects depicted in From the Rivers to the Sea are modest or monumental, what most impresses me is the success with which the intimate medium of wood engraving - usually pinioned within the pages of a book - has been translated onto such a grand scale to form a public art work with a direct and dramatic narrative.


I hope some of the following images, snapped in the seconds before my Airport-bound Metro pulled in, will give a sense of the scale and success of the work.