Enrico Crispolti

WHAT CAN BE DONE WITH ETCHING

Cordio begins etching in 1957. Having studied as a sculptor in Catania, he studies etching in Rome; and his development as an etcher continues in parallel for over a couple of decades with his work as a sculptor, where he refines his very warm and personal flowing style of wood sculpting, that only subsides when he takes up painting and primarily “a fresco”. His etching however may run parallel to his sculpting but is essentially separate from it, seeing as Cordio doesn’t take up etching as a side interest with respect to his sculpting, but rather places it in a position of prominence within his artistic production. Thus both his sculpting and his etching have developed along separate paths and – what is more important – with a specific intent in confronting the different mediums ( as opposed to the refined unity that can be seen for example in the work of Emilio Greco), despite focusing strongly on materials in both cases. The art of etching on the other hand doesn’t support occasional nor marginal intrusions; it cannot be approached through compromise, nor translation, and any attempts in these directions are promptly penalised and disavowed as being essentially useless. Such a tendency turns out to be totally superfluous unless it is couched in the specific medium, aimed at obtaining results that cannot be obtained any other way, in no way as an alternative. During the second half of the century in Italy we have witnessed a gradual decline of graphic art; and a widespread lack of graphic culture has now become the norm. Many authors, as well as printers and publishers are fighting a rearguard action against this state of affairs, a battle that is nevertheless not sufficient to compensate for this present lack of qualitative awareness. And the qualitative evaluation of the results, however different and diverse they may seem, should follow from the exploitation of the vast range of possibilities offered by the etching medium. On the other hand it has to be said that the work of Fieschi or Guerreschi on the figurative end and that of Strazzi on the experimental non-figurative side, to mention a few poignant and truly original examples, does put us in a position to state that there are strong reference points in which one may glimpse the history of Italian etching over the last decades, works that do not pale into insignificance when placed alongside the production of the rest of the international etching world. The comparison I speak of can easily be made with reference to the Biennale of Lubiana for example (to mention but one privileged place on our doorstep) where one is immediately placed before levels of technical excellence in etching that do not necessarily involve major countries (the USA), but also very marginal situations. A comparison that makes one readily aware of the incentive in terms of quality production that is provided by an environment that is imbued the culture of graphic etching, where this trait is obviously pertinent to both the artist and the viewers. The high esteem in which I hold work Cordio’s, as it has developed over the last forty years, is based on this particular consideration (a true litmus test for the any evaluation of artistic production). His work has grown within the specific, even exclusive, possibilities offered by the medium. Cordio, despite being a valid sculptor, and now a graceful painter, has managed also to be a true etcher. Through etching he has developed a range of expressive experiences that might of otherwise been unattainable, and that therefore implicitly enhance the specific possibilities of the medium, exploited to the full without ever allowing technical brilliance to overshadow the clarity of the artistic expression (an ever present danger that could undermine the semantic intent and that is often found in this specific practice, where technique is certainly conditioning but is not of itself meaningful). In depicting suburbs at the end of the Fifties and early Sixties, city limits (Rome) where buildings and spontaneous vegetation mingle, not with a social bias (as Vespignani for example, had also represented in etching) but with a more sentimental, affectionate and emotionally profound examination, as in his depiction of faces, bodies, nudes and “still lives”. Cordio’s etching style was peremptory, a dark, tangled mass, penetratingly broad and utterly cursive. Clearly inspired by Bartolini (one of the greatest etchers of the century in Europe, thanks to whom etching attained a new boldness and emotional rooting, especially compared to the sublime balance of Morandi’s style). And yet Cordio, with his strong and boldly expressive lines, managed to push back the boundaries and reach a higher level of expression in etching. Cordio almost corroded right through the plates: out of a need for expression and immediacy, certainly not out of refined self-satisfaction. Etching, but also with slight intrusions of pictorial aquatinting. The experience of a year’s work with Friedländer in 1961 however gave his particular etching language a greater breadth, which led to a more freely experimental technique during ’62 and ’63, with a widespread use of colour. The etching marks become wider, while the tinting developed into a complex chromatic layering. Instead of using the Hayter technique of applying a number of different colours on the same plate (with unreproduceable effects, that Cordio termed “monotypes”), he adopts a more analytical (and traditional) approach by superimposing different plates, a master plate for each colour. The themes treated also became more personal, more domestic: “still lives”, mainly, everyday landscapes. But the image is now acquiring a more marked association with memory, often a lyrical lightness of memory. And meanwhile a particular attention to the textural aspects of surfaces and marks is beginning to creep into his work. Toward the end of the Sixties Cordio goes beyond an initial chromatic statement intended as a background to the prevailing representational value of the line, and shifts toward a more consistent use of aquatinting that allows the pictorial aspect to get the upper hand over the figurative element and accentuates textural substance of the image. The same image now develops into a more softly figurative synthesis balanced on extremely refined surfaces that play on subtle chromatic juxtapositions, thus exploiting to the full the range of aquatinting effects that this technique is ideally suited to. The image now reaches further down the path of explicitly evocative representation of remembered sensations of places and nature. A tale steeped in emotions that can occasionally be traced to their location (as for example in Alba sull’Etna – Dawn over Etna, 1967 or in the five superb etchings dedicated to Etna in 1971 ), or even just suggestions of situations and particular moments (as in Fiore notturno – Nocturnal flower – another example). A very personal and particular form of pictorial remembrance, typical of a material consistency that after all the aquatint technique appears to inspire the its very distant sensitivity, though the colour is occasionally allowed to reach levels of considerable intensity (as in the fiery pictorial quality of Armida, 1969). Effects that appear to spontaneously call to mind the long lost evocative elegance of the “Nabis” at the turn of the century, though still seen through the gentle story telling style that is typical of Cordio’s evocative efforts. An ever present and intense nostalgia for the landscape of his Sicilian countryside (EriceSelinunte, the Etna), that almost appears to hint in the direction of a Mediterranean mythical dimension but also seems to reflect recollections of distant Brittany. And there is thus no doubt that Cordio’s etchingwork should impose itself thanks to its very original intensity of pictorial construction that is quite clearly intrinsic to the medium itself. The pictorial effect grows even stronger and denser at the beginning of the Seventies and during the first half of this decade, in large plate compositions inspired by landscapes of an extraordinary chromatic-textural consistency and entrusted to the masterly control Cordio shows of the aquatint technique. Bright, luminous colours, of an intensity that is unknown outside aquatinting, swirl into evocative patterns that resonate with passion, affection, yearning. And by the middle of the Seventies he achieves moments of almost total pagan identification with nature through the sweepingly lyrical density of his evocative intent. In the second half of this decade, that was to prove the most intense etching period for Cordio, especially with the cycle of ten sheets called La villa del Poeta – The poet’s villa, 1975-1977, a less detached, more familiar vein seems to seep into his work, with his representations of small sections of gardens, where vegetation almost completely overwhelms the pictorial space, in an even more pronounced communion with nature. And the same time, close up, the actual textural aspects of the image are seen to be richer, more marked, more surprising, while the narrative element becomes increasingly well defined, almost analytic due to its being more connected and time-specific, compared to the vast landscapes of a few years earlier. And it is at this very moment that the great flexibility of the etching, and to be more precise, the aquatint medium is exploited to the full in Cordio’s work. That is to say when the previous vast expanses are replaced by a surprising series of situations together with very particular chromatic variation and iconic suggestions. And it is through this development that the scope of the lyrical evocation becomes less one-sided, more specific, more colloquial. A lyrical evocation that nevertheless remains the most authentic aspect of Cordio’s etching creativity. A level of awareness that is particularly explicit in the series of five etchings Omaggio all’Etna (Homage to Etna), 1979-80, when, as in other similar works, the sensitive-affectionate narration that Cordio is developing becomes almost joyously and brazenly full of action, meetings, situations and feelings, almost episodic, in its “closeness” with nature, and especially vegetation. Almost as if he had found his own imaginative hunting ground, his own “water lilies”. And this later develops into a softly evocative naturalism that spans the Eighties, intensely lyrical, while the imagination backs off into less “close up” effects, spreading its wings into a totality of chromatic experience reaffirmed as the place and means of evocative flight, pure lyricism. And in the work of the Nineties the density of the chromatic texture of the aquatint appears to become even more evident, while the thematic focus continues to unfold around narrative passages of nature. This after all, in its unbounded variety and distance, remains Cordio the etcher’s main imaginative sounding board. A pre-eminent etcher then, a brilliant master of chromatic aquatint technique, who can hardly be compared to anyone else on the graphic scene over the last decades; with his privileged language that is couched entirely in the specific nature of the medium, that has been experimentally created, enriched and stretched in all its flexibility. And it is therefore clear, when we speak so insistently of a pictorial quality in Cordio’s work, that we are not intending to appeal to something beyond the dimension of etching, or an attempt to simulate painting. Rather we wish to stress how Cordio has managed to heighten pictorial chromatism in etching, at times with colours of great brilliance, but nevertheless entirely intrinsic to the specific possibilities of the medium (as for Goya in Los caprichos, here the aquatint technique is not just used as pictorial background, but in order to heighten, to create surprising bursts of light, so for Cordio the aquatint is the “means” by which he achieves images graced with an extraordinary textural and chromatic depth. We have thus tried to underline the value of an extraordinary and intimately evocative feat of the imagination, developed through etching, and thus the singularity and extremely relevant quality of his presence in the context of Italian etching of our time.

Enrico Crispolti