Text written by Massimo Bertozzi
From the dark that you miss comes the light that you loathe. Jean-Pierre Velly
Relief engraving is a practice that consists of removing material, whether from the softness of linoleum or the hardness of wood. But in reality, the result it aims for is the very opposite: a drawing out, through the highlighting of its contours, of an image seemingly suspended, as if taken unawares in the act of becoming, in the fragile interplay between solids and voids.
“As a xylographer,” said Lorenzo Viani, “I use a scalpel to remove the excess wood that covers the image.” But that wasn’t really quite how it worked, and even less so for a sculptor like Henri Beaufour, whose awareness of the images he unveils runs deep and clear.
Indeed, for Henri, even this form of engraving remains an extension of his passion for drawing: another way of leaving a mark, different from the velvety lines of the pencil or the brilliant lines of the pen, but also different from those employed in etching, incised using a point and softened with acid.
And so, what is immediately striking is the clarity of the flatness of the space, punctuated in perfunctory fashion by the simple, visually compact and almost geometric profiles of the bodies, despite the articulated development of the lines. It is also the contrast between the metaphysical blackness of the backgrounds and the frenzied lines in the foreground, but what impresses above all is the monumental structure of the subjects, giving the pose of the images a dialectal solemnity, alien to any aestheticism, and lending them an earthy physicality of surly faces, hard stares, strong hands, and bare feet.
His figures, each in their own bizarre way and at odds with the world, are embedded in the linoleum paste with unforgettable energy — a sea of austere faces and angular characters. So many slender and stylised subjects, delivered with sparse white lines cut into the black background of the paper; pallid faces emerging from a sea of ink; men and women, old and young, with looks at once suggesting their readiness to grab life with both hands, yet betraying the resignation of too many defeats; whatever the case, a collection of images revealed by next to nothing, and wherein the scarcity of the line is functional to the eloquence of the expression.
And then there are portraits with more character, those of almost physiognomic suggestion, in which an interest in expression prevails, whether grotesque or pathetic; where, through a simple, rigorous, and almost detached form, Henri records the variety of the human face with rationalist vigour and humorous exploration, grappling not so much with changes of mood as with the influences of deeper psychological and sentimental states.
Sometimes, the line appears more narrative — denser and more fiery — almost ready to bring out the depth of a space that is actually printed on the surface. Either way, the architectural structure of the figures always retains its essential geometry, the body of its volumes, its balance in space.
His cut-out narration, punctuated just as much by small cuts in the outlines as by breaks in the lines, succeeds in remaining malleable and fluid, even in places where it must emphasise a void. The effect thus achieved is one of great homogeneity and of regularity of strokes, even where the work is denser and more articulated, supported by the ability to propagate and extend across its surface a continuous and restless vibration, capable of involving the observer body and soul.
And he does this without forcing the issue, even when wrestling with certain geometric constraints, such as one head that is square like a cardboard box, or another that is faceted like a primitive mask with hints of cubism: These, Henri resolves in a lively decomposition of the planes, without ever impeding on the volumes or flattening the spaces.
In this respect, we would like to underscore the way in which Henri Beaufour does his utmost to eliminate the risk of two-dimensionality, as much in the extreme synthesis of bi-chromatism as in the space of large flat areas, the better to restore to the image its three dimensions, the thickness of the figures, and the depth of the space.
And so it is that the fluid development of the lines organising space and defining volumes with a bare minimum of detailed strokes is superimposed on the flat darkness of the backgrounds, those spaces that are almost absolute, empty, and unreal — as if punctuating the small variations in light, marking out shadows but avoiding any decorative excess.
The contrast between light and shadow is established through rapid and sudden incisions that are reduced in size, with no need for highlights or blurred breakthroughs. This leaves the physical force of the cut intact and gives the hollowing out of the material a vertiginous depth, with sinuous, continuous lines that sculpt the shapes and planes, focusing any residual light on the faces and hands.
Sometimes, of course, it can happen that Henri allows himself to be overtaken by a certain expressive ardour. Then, and only then, do his outlines become extremely marked, the lines shortening and breaking, preparing the image for a synthetic rigidity approaching that of certain Expressionist xylographs — those of one Kirchner, for example — but always far less cold and, above all, less measured than his.
His figures are always synthesised and fixed in a gesture, a grimace, a characteristic sign, with the simplicity of the white chalk that drew our childhood impressions on the blackboard.
The furrow of the engraving conveys a strong expressive charge but also more fragile emotional suggestions. Of course, the taste for synthesis and the speed of the gesture admittedly sometimes give way to distortions that exasperate the details, touching and deforming a boxer’s nose, spilling over into a dancer’s physique, or making a mockery of animal forms and drooping cellulite. But afterwards, everything comes into its own in the gaze of a sad clown, in the serene innocence of a gorilla, and even in the frenetic vibrations of a bee’s wings.
Because whatever the case, these subjects are always possessed of a monumental austerity, a seriousness that brooks neither vulgarity nor laughter. The proud and untamed appearance they maintain, their noble attitude, stems above all else from Henri Beaufour’s profound respect for his work, which in his case means respect for mankind and for nature.
Henri Beaufour’s engravings are unexpected and surprising, like apparitions. They are striking for various reasons, but above all because they immediately reveal themselves to be ripe fruit, plucked at the right moment and in the blink of an eye by attentive and skilful hands.
For many artists, engraving is a secondary path, almost a country lane down which to find an escape from their enforced Sunday rest; or worse, a shortcut like shooting haphazardly into the undergrowth to be sure of bringing at least some game back for the saddlebag.
For Henri, the practice is more akin to a new outlet for his passion for drawing, which remains the core around which he continues to layer palpable images that are completely inseparable from the body of the sculpture.
Everyone is familiar with the etching method, which involves acid eating into a copper or zinc plate where it is not covered by wax, that is, where the artist has scored it by drawing on it with a pointed instrument.
The skill lies in the stroke, so that the acid’s corrosiveness eats in just enough — neither too much, nor too little — to allow the black outline to emerge precisely like that of a pen, yet retain a greasy, grainy imprint like that of a pencil or charcoal. This paves the way for the paper to penetrate the grooves and carry away the colour, without tearing it away, like the suction of the surf receding after the impetuous passage of the southwesterly wind.
Only in this way is apparent ease transformed into the admirable outline that is the hallmark of Henri’s work. It is the result of a fast, almost joyful way of doing things, constantly in search of a lively but not flashy expressiveness, which is an ironic and light-hearted way of distancing himself from academic expression. The outline takes on an urgency at times, particularly when it has to support the mental concentration of the self-portraits, as if wishing to kerb its enthusiasm but remain supple and fluid, neither rigid nor excited, ever mindful of not burdening the image with too much descriptive detail.
Indeed, in the precision of the stroke there is never any search for atmospheric effects, even in the dizzying rush of a motorbike or the unremarkable dromedary pulling the plough: the outline is always intended solely to render the object plastically, and even the lightness of the background, misted over as if with a veil of dust, is spread without any rigidity, so that none of the image’s spontaneity is lost.
There thus emerges a precise intention to purify the stroke: to dry it out, but not to the point of making it dry, while the background gives space to the finest lines to help them develop without making them lose their body and concreteness.
And yet, this way of scratching the plate is never improvised: It is methodical and considered, even when it appears to be a manifestation of ardour and impulsiveness. Henri never relies on the prestigious charm that the acid’s bite might lend to even the most random stroke. What is important is to not flatten the sudden freshness of the emotion afforded by rapid and spontaneous printing, first on the plate and then on the paper. In this way, the stroke can be translated into images that are true in all their surprising nature, without losing the materiality it possesses, and which consists of marking out shapes and volumes.
So even when the line takes on an urgency, as if out of a compelling need to fill the body of the form, we are witnesses not to any assiduous search for chiaroscuro, as with a sudden nostalgia for colour, but rather to the declaration of a sculptor’s taste for matter over colour.
Fillings such as these may even sometimes appear too pronounced, too cold, and too vain. Whatever the case, we can always check that they do not hinder the image that will manifest itself and appear if we allow the spontaneous patterns of perception to take effect.
What Henri likes to emphasise are the essential features of everyday and almost elementary truths — of people and animals, but almost never of things — using simple and direct outlines that, by drawing the casual contours of a formal ad hoc structure, bring forth precise physiognomies, identities, and characters out of anonymity.
This is true of animals, which are one of Henri’s passions, because of their strange shapes so suited to his slightly wild taste for expressiveness. But for the most part, it is because animals, unlike people, do not take offence: One can be irreverent with them, as one might with a hen, which may be showcased freely in the most obscene aspect of its nature.
But it is true as well and above all for the human figure, the essence of which can be constructed from nearly nothing. A profile, a contour line that unfolds from the pen to trace a body or a face, as if trailing in the wake of a silhouette that is oxidising, leaving barely a trace on the paper; but a trace that pulsates and represents that human figure, starting from this little nothing that breathes and speaks.
For these figures, even when reduced to nothing but their contours and flattened on a plate, never lose their substance of being sculptures in momentary exile.
Hence the power of the portraits, engraved as if on the margins, and unbeknownst to their subjects. Portraits in which there is more than resemblance, and from which the essence of the character emerges in particular, concentrated in its expressiveness: Vito’s Nabis aura, Giovanni’s dandyish detachment, Aldo’s artisan concreteness.
It is no coincidence that the drawing becomes rougher and bolder, with stained and meticulously thickened shadowing, highlighting a sharp nakedness of stroke, with cuts, spills, incisions, and connections of form and expression.
And then we find ourselves surprised once more by this plastic blossoming that emerges from a bare and disarmed instrumental poverty, from a solitary graphic style, barely shaded, that succeeds in weaving this fragile web in which so much truth remains imprisoned.
In the end, one wonders spontaneously where Henri Beaufour’s ability to see and make us see comes from. Was he inspired by, or did he borrow from, the engravers who came before him?
It’s possible. It’s certain, even. But be that as it may, the influence is but slight, distant, skilfully concealed, and barely perceptible.
For we are left in no doubt that Henri is a cultured artist. The spontaneity, the inexorable flow of his line, is not immediate, primitive, or psychic, even in the most casual and dazzling of his outlines. Even in the rapid, broken line of a single burst, there is nothing unfinished or purely instinctive; instead, it carries within it a profound visual culture. This culture, however, looks to the past as to an indistinct place of origin, to which it is now firmly linked by its only profound attachment to the life of forms.
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