Etchings occupy a peculiar mid-point between the grand ‘officialness’ of the painting medium, historically seen as noble – whether oil, watercolour, synthetic or piss painting (Warhol) – and the medium of drawing on paper, by nature more likely to preparatory and doodling, an immediate mind thought dashed down with nowhere near the same degree of finish. Etchings are traditionally created by scraping a design using a stylus into a metal surface covered with a wax film, with methods of acid wash to ‘etch’ the design into the exposed metal varying over time. With more effort and finish involved than simple drawing, it signals a mode of art in which artists could develop more graphic-design like work, and – crucially – more risqué or charged works, whether personal, political or erotic. Then, the ease of duplication and dissemination meant that naughty political or erotic images could be readily absorbed by sponge-like public recipients.
Thus in Goya’s famous ‘Atrocities of War’ series a sequence of his own urgent pacifist appeals are shockingly graphic, the medium affording a greater degree to push boundaries, both in content and jagged, savage style. It makes for an instant, hard-hitting paean against conflict. Even his more personal reflections on bullfighting are expounded beautifully in the medium. Their impact and the reverence afforded his war etchings were cannily exploited by contemporary jokers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who bought one copy of the etchings and proceeded to imprint them with their own cheeky, two-fingers-up ghoul or clown faces, thoroughly pissing off the art establishment in the process, which was precisely the point. (Incidentally, I support the move: only one –albeit priceless – copy was defaced, resulting in an entirely new and legitimate work of art with valid, tangible purpose, operating self-reflexively within the medium. Just like defacing Hitler’s watercolours: if anyone is going to buy these at auction I’d rather someone who can send them up than some crazy fascist fanatic.)
Perhaps most famously for erotic sketchings Aubrey Beardsley embodied the Decadence of Art Nouveau and Oscar Wilde era high society, yet imbued the medium with a sophistication and “intellectual” validity through references to Japanese Shunga and graphic design. Amazingly enough grotesque and comedically enlarged phalluses are made elegant and part of the graphic surface pattern, erotica almost tasteful. It functions similarly to the explicit but highly finished paintings of coupling figures on fashionable ancient Roman villas, titillation through exquisite draughtsmanship representing the height of societal sophistication. While Beardsley operated within the stylistic confines of Art Nouveau, managing to create risqué, cheeky and thoroughly enjoyable explicit etchings, Picasso at the latter stages of his life working within his distinctive Cubist style brought his own distinctive savagery to muffs and tits. It is an extremely fine line between whether you see his stiff, unbending strokes (pun absolutely intended) depicting lumpen bodies of deliberately grotesque proportions as an important element of Picasso’s visual language, or whether you simply see the upturned vulvas and wiry pubic hairs as the drooling exertions of an ageing man exploiting fully his status as the greatest artist of the 20th century.