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On Mark-Making. Dora Maurer's Systemic Alchemy and Kinetic Captures

Updated: Feb 10


By Emese Revesz | Since the 1960s, Hungarian multidisciplinary artist Dora Maurer has pursued printmaking to explore creative conceptions rooted in transmutation and action. Her printmaking laboratory in Budapest functions as an arena to document progressive systematic elements in traditional intaglio format. For Dora Maurer, process became the space “to figure it out.”

Dora Maurer, I’d Rather Be a Bird (Action Graphic 1),1971, letters, aquatint, folding, crumpling, 21 5/8 x 39 3/8 inches paper size (55 x 100 cm), photograph by Miklos Sulyok, artist’s archive, Budapest.

I have selected from Dora Maurer’s multifaceted oeuvre a single image-making medium, printmaking, as the focus of my treatise.1 While she completed her studies in printmaking at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and produced an extensive body of prints between 1957 and 1980, my justification for this decision lies elsewhere. As she admitted in her book entitled Etching, Copper Engraving: “For a long time, printmaking provided me with a calming means for visual expression. Today it comprises a part of my activity in a very different—much more direct—manner, and I employ alternate methods as well. For years, not only did I spend my days engaging in precise studio work, but, to put things more poetically, ‘my existence intertwined with it.’”2

The artist’s choice of material for realizing a work of art becomes an especially important issue when it is no longer simply a technical regard but rather one that amounts to a principal component of that creation—the exact kernel of thought from which it had spawned.

Dora Maurer’s oeuvre, which spans over half a century, is characterized by a rich toolset of artistic expression. In addition to conventional printmaking and painting approaches, her life’s work also incorporates photography, film and action art. Furthermore, she explores in her prints questions that constitute the fundamental problematics of her holistic output. These include mark-making, process, shifting and displacing motifs, seriality, structure, original and copy, as well as the interspace that separates rules and random chance. She undertakes a portion of these aspects deliberately and directly in her printed images, followed by deeper exploration using other techniques. For Maurer, the unique procedure, materiality and philosophy inherent to printmaking are not facets of a self-directed specialty, but of a phenomenon that delves into the internal dynamics between reality and creation. Rather than feeling constrained by printmaking’s rules and limitations, she sees the entirety of the medium as a means of personal expression that—in addition to photography, film and painting—solutions to a given problem can manifest. As Tibor Gayor writes: “This supposed graphic artist has done away with the perspective of genre-based segregation in printmaking.”3

ALTERNATIVES TO SOCIALIST REALISM

Dora Maurer enrolled in the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1955. She became familiar with etching in the fall of 1956; intaglio remained a defining attribute throughout her entire printmaking trajectory. Starting in 1959, she moved increasingly away from the idealizing viewpoint of Socialist Realism as she drew upon inspiration from 15th- and 16th-century Dutch Realism as well as 1920s German Expressionism. Her “alternative” realism materializes in the etching series entitled Workers’ Movement Triptych (Conspiracy, Clash, Revenge) (1959) that she created for the anniversary of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The multi-figured, complex compositions represent the revolt’s three phases: conspiracy, rebellion and retaliation. For the first scene, Maurer modeled the figures plotting around the table after academy staff, friends, colleagues, a cleaning lady, a professional model and a furnace operator. Some of these individuals can also be found among conspirators in the scene after the revolution gets crushed.

Dora Maurer, Workers’ Movement Triptych (Conspiracy, Clash, Revenge), 1959, etching, each image 8 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches (21 x 21 cm), photograph by Miklos Sulyok, artist’s archive, Budapest.

In spite of the etchings’ apparent political adherence, Maurer’s means of depicting the subject matter was far removed from the Socialist Realist style instituted by the academy.Her creative outlook aligned more with “surnaturalism,” a movement of young Hungarian artists who, after 1956, reflected mostly in painting on Western Pop Art, photorealism and magical realism, subtly expressing their secret criticism of the establishment’s propagated aesthetics. Maurer’s diploma work entitled Everyday,completed in 1961, involves an eight-piece etching series offering a subjective, lyrical panorama of her own present. She clearly broke away from the engraving style that remained dominant in Hungary, keeping an equal distance between the sculpturally shaped, classicizing realism and the pathos-steeped archaization of Bela Kondor’s circle.4 Instead of employing flexible line drawings for her prints, Maurer created unique surfaces by experimenting with etching (using acids of various strength as well as the open bite technique) and printing with foreign materials (primarily patterned textiles). Even though she demonstrated outstanding technical dexterity, the Everyday series did not overcome the ideological vetting needed to pass a diploma defense. Teachers accredited Maurer’s formal knowledge and skill, however, according to the state representative who ultimately vetoed her work “it [was] not appropriate to agree with this perspective.”5...

PRINTMAKING AS ACTION

Experimental conceptual printmaking spurred Maurer to ask novel questions. Rather than aiming to produce a professional print, she inquired into theoretical issues connected to the procedures and components of mark-making and printing, as well as the structure of their respective relationships. In her own words: “After ironing out the initial difficulties (figurative-literary thinking), I found my adequate form of visual expression in demonstrating the traces of movements and changes.”8 Apropos the print Plate Corroded Through (1970), Maurer nuanced a familiar surface effect implemented in her narrative-atmospheric prints by forgoing any figural or symbolic references. The sole subject of the piece lies in the documentation of the chemical interaction the plate undergoes due to the corrosive effect of the mordant. What had previously functioned as a refined tool of image creation evolved into a pure imprint of chemical reaction, which represented printmaking in its own capacity. Modal self-reflection imbued into the conceptual current of printmaking that unfolded in Maurer’s practice around 1970.

The artist further carried out these notions when she dropped a metal plate from a multi-story residential building and then used the damaged matrix to create a print. For these “action” prints, she exploited softer and more flexible aluminum instead of traditional copper variants. Throwing the Plate from Very High (1970) effectively chronicles the impact of the plate hitting the ground. With this turn, the purpose of etching no longer embodies a subtly elaborated visual composition; the very medium of the printed image dominates its essence. The image consciously testifies for the circumstances whereby the print materializes as a result of the printing surface and therefore registers any changes (be they manual or alchemic) introduced to that surface. To quote Maurer:

Prints are documents. They are ‘frozen’ images of an event.9

Or, as art historian Dieter Ronte writes: “Printmaking becomes an action and a documentation of action, in which the plate plays the role of an action object.”10 The photos accompanying Throwing the Plate from Very High further illustrate the corrosion and dropping. At the same time, the matrix shaped by natural effects is more than just proof of its own story, as it serves as the source of a consequent print, a classic work of art, that Maurer produces. As she elucidated: “The print of an object is not just a document of the condition of that object, but also an image.”11

Dora Maurer’s post-1970 conceptual prints center on processual and residual elements. In her own articulation, the problematics of leaving and tracing marks also include works, created around 1970, that examine effects of natural phenomena (wind, flood), changes in materials (drying, seepage), ventures of motion (falling, walking around) and deleterious gestures (gunshot, destruction).12

The images rendered as a result of the actions are not mere reproductions, but singular entities or monotypes. After the plate had been dropped, the damaged material underwent further distortion via the pressure of the printing press, meaning that the second print differed from the first by exhibiting the matrix’s subsequent stages of modification and wrecking. 200 Gunshots at Saint Sebastian (1971) exemplifies such a monotype; here, Maurer highlights physical contact, a particular aspect of mark-making. The wooden plate resembling a human figure records the traces of the shots it had been hit by as a kind of “target-print.” This thematic pathway also extends to Maurer’s “pedotypes,” in which the most ancient tool of mark-making, the footprint, becomes an element of pictorial creation.13 Concerning Private March on the 1st of May on Artificial Ground (1971), the footprints left in the painted paper-mache become a means of political demonstration amounting to a one-person protest against collective parades. In an alternative context, another pedotype emerged from a cooperative and democratic creation process; the print, as an example of “accidental graphics,” captured the steps of visitors at the Helikon Gallery in 1976.14 Contrary to Private March on the 1st of May on Artificial Ground, the “accidental” artwork demonstrated the existence of a community that was organized from the bottom up, from the inside out. These works concurrently raise the problematic of the “quasi-image.” While traditional printmaking considers the plate as the unique, manually worked-over object, it is the print produced by the matrix (through indirect manual intervention) that is regarded as the artwork.15 The former embodies an original, uniquely formulated surface while the latter exists as a reproduction. Thus, the print is essentially a “copy,” whereas the plate itself takes the role of the “quasi-image.” Maurer’s experimentations challenge this conventional framework. The print of Throwing the Plate from Very High intrinsically distorts (in its original form, annihilates) its source image. In the case of the pedotypes, the matrix is the sole of the human foot, the print realized is the totality of footprints and the yielded surface is the unique print—or monotype....16

[This article appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.4, No.1-2. All rights reserved ©KADS New York.]

Dora Maurer, Private March on the 1st of May on Artificial Ground (Pedotype, Action Graphic), 1971, wood fibre, paper-mache, powder paint, wood-cement, dirt, photograph, 27 1/8 x 34 5/8 inches (69 x 88 cm), photograph by Miklos Sulyok, courtesy of Hungarian National Gallery: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Dora Maurer, Displacements II, 1–4 (Action Graphic 14),1974, etching, drypoint, each image 11 7/8 x 19 5/8 inches (30 x 50 cm), photograph by Miklos Sulyok, artist’s archive, Budapest.

Notes:

1. The author curated the exhibition entitled Nyomhagyas, nyomtatas: Maurer Dora grafikai munkassaga 1957-1981 [Printing, leaving traces: Dora Maurer’s graphic oeuvre 1955–1981] that took place at Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest, October 12–December 3, 2017. The author also edited a complementary catalog that explores Dora Maurer’s graphic oeuvre. See: Emese Revesz, ed., Nyomhagyas, nyomtatas: Maurer Dora grafikai munkassaga 1957-1981 [Printing, leaving traces: Dora Maurer’s graphic oeuvre 1955–1981], exh. cat. (Budapest: Vintage Gallery, 2017). (English edition in printing.)

2. Dora Maurer, Rezmetszet, rezkarc [Etching, copper engraving] (Budapest: Corvina, 1976), 38.

3. Tibor Gayor, introduction to Maurer Dora nyomtatott grafikainak kiallitasa [An exhibition of Dora Maurer’s printed graphic works], exh. cat. (Budapest: Helikon Gallery, 1976).

4. Bela Kondor (1931–1972) was the most determinant etcher of the 1960s in Hungary.

5. The first public diploma defense presentation at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, modelled after the Soviet system, was held at the end of the academic year in 1950–1951. The Diploma Committee scrutinized the student submissions according to whether the works conformed to the aesthetic values of Socialist Realism. One official representative from the Ministry of Public Education who occupied a seat on the Committee held the right to veto the jury’s decision.

8. Dora Maurer, “Eltolodasok” [Displacements], in Dora Maurer: Arbeiten, munkak, works 1970–1993, eds. Dieter Ronte and Laszlo Beke (Budapest: Present Time Foundation, 1994), 60.

9. Maurer, Rezmetszet, rezkarc, 37.

10. Dieter Ronte,“Elvek/kiindulas: Kiserletek/cselekvesek: Rogzitesek, valtoztatasok” [Principles/starting point: Experiments/actions: Fixations/alterations], in Ronte, Beke, Dora Maurer: Arbeiten, munkak, works, 29.

11. Maurer, Rezmetszet, rezkarc, 36.

12. Ibid., 60.

13. Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print: From Pre-Pop to Postmodern (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), fig. 18. In 1972, Antoni Tapies created an intaglio print entitled Suite Catalana, which shows the steps of the Sardana dance native to Catalonia. Footprints and body prints were also commonly used in Pop Art and body art (Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein) and by Fluxus (Robert Watts, Fingerprints (1958)).

14. Laszlo Beke, “Szormeapplikaciok kesoi hetprobaja” [The belated heptathlon of fur applications], in Dora Maurer: Munkak/Arbeiten 1958–1983 [Dora Maurer: Works/Arbeiten 1958–1983], exh. cat. (Budapest: Ernst Museum, 1984), 6; Laszlo Beke, “Targyilagos gyengedsegek” [Objective tenderness], in Ronte, Beke, Dora Maurer: Arbeiten, munkak, works, 87–88.

15. The “overpopulation” of prints is then prevented by the destruction of the printing block from which they “spring forth.”

16. Ronte, Beke, Dora Maurer: Arbeiten, munkak, works, 88.

A full version of this article On Mark-Making. Dora Maurer's Systemic and Kinetic Captures by Emese Revesz appears n the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol. 4 No. 1-2, published in November 2018.

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DORA MAURER (b. 1937 in Budapest, Hungary) is a multimedia artist working in printmaking, photography, film, painting and installation, among others. She graduated in 1961 from the Painting and Graphic Faculties of the Hungarian University (former Academy) of Fine Arts. Alongside her own creative practice, her pedagogical and curatorial work carry importance. She is a professor emerita at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts.Dora Maurer’s work has been exhibited at venues worldwide, including MoMA (New York, 1985, 2015), Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2010), Tate Modern (2016), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2014) and the Whitechapel Gallery (London, 2015). In 2016, the legendary White Cube Mason’s Yard in London presented 6 Out of 5, an exhibition of Maurer’s conceptual art spanning 50 years. Her work is represented in numerous private and public collections in Hungary and abroad, including Albertina (Vienna), Kunsthalle (Nurnberg), Kupferstich-Kabinett (Dresden), Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum (Graz), Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin), Tate Gallery (London), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), MoMA (New York), the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum Moderner Kunst MUMOK (Vienna).

EMESE REVESZ, an art historian and curator, teaches as an associate professor at the Art History Department of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest. Her most important research topics include the history of Hungarian printmaking in the 19th and 20th century, children’s book illustration and contemporary print. She published a number of books, including Image, Press and History: Illustrated Press in Hungary 1850-1870 (2015), and monographs of Hungarian painters (Istvan Csok, 2006, 2010; Adolf Fenyes, 2014), and curated various exhibitions, such as Printing, leaving traces: Dora Maurer’s graphic oeuvre 1955–1981 (2017) and Szigoruan ellenorzitt nyomatok: Magyar sokszorositott grafika 1945–1961 kozott [Closely Watched Prints: Hungarian graphic prints between 1945–1961] (2018).

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