Through the eyes of a realist

Artist Leonard Baskin applied a sculptor's sense to his printmaking, imbuing his subjects with a singular full-bodied style.

Published September 17, 2006


Leonard Baskin said once, "I do not feel weak or threatened, but I do feel alone." And no wonder. Throughout his career, Baskin (1922-2000) repudiated the major artistic currents of the 20th century, abjuring abstraction, minimalism, pop art and all its spinoffs. Always faithful to representation, his art had, said his friend, the poet Ted Hughes, "no evasion of the real."

But "Weird and Wonderful" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum demonstrates that it is not always a realism tied to the overly literal. His work is interpretive.

The dozens of prints on view are from a master of the medium. He considered himself a sculptor and had important commissions in that medium. And he seems to have regarded the process of printmaking much like sculpting, especially when using techniques requiring cuts into metal and wood plates.

The show's title conveys the spirit of Baskin's talent, portraying people mostly, but also animals and plants, as both recognizable and alien. A suite of etchings depicting leaders of the 1787 Constitutional Convention include familiar founding fathers. You easily identify George Washington even though the only distinguishing details are his eyes, nose and mouth, rendered as if he were emerging from dark waters.

Pay close attention to the eyes of Baskin's subjects. George Custer's are drawn only as outlines, which give them a disturbing blankness. Those of Joseph Conrad, the novelist, are full of dark knowingness.

Baskin created several series of artists whom he admired as proponents of realistic depiction. These etchings are powerful renderings of emotive features suggestive of their preoccupations rather than faithful likenesses. Chaim Soutine, known for his violent, expressionistic paintings of slaughtered animals, is depicted with dark slashes of finely etched lines covering most of his face. Theodore Gericault, who painted dismembered human limbs from the Paris morgue and inmates from insane asylums, is shown near death himself, a wasted face with haunted eyes. Francisco Goya, another traveler to the heart of human darkness, is portrayed with more restraint and distance; his dark eyes contain a flash of anger in a carefully composed face.

Baskin initially worked only in black and white. Gradually, he came to understand that color need not be a decorative distraction; it had a power to convey mood, complement and define line. His lithographs, more than his etchings and woodcuts, are given the color treatment. A series on American Indians is drawn with blunt dignity. The addition of desert colors to the faces and backgrounds contextualizes them.

Most of his portraits of particular people, including three of himself, are done as "busts": head and shoulders only. When he was working more conceptually, he often depicted most or all of the body.

One of his most famous figures is Man of Peace, a woodcut completed in 1952 and sized an enormous 63 inches in length. He made 12 blocks to create it but printed it so seamlessly that you can't find any suggestion of multiple pulls through a press. Its thematic message is delivered using the symbolic rooster from Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and his captor, a man wrapped in barbed wire that has Holocaust associations. The man's peeled skin, seen in much of Baskin's work, is a physical evisceration that suggests that people can be bestial, like any other animals. The difference may be our awareness of our inevitable deaths and how we deal with it.

Leonard Baskin waited a long time to feel part of the mainstream, though he was always sought out to create unusual realistic portraits for public projects. Many major U.S. museums have his work in their collections. He led an interesting life, founding Gehenna Press while a 20-year-old disgruntled art student at Yale. (He left before graduation.) He collaborated on or produced on his own a catalog of more than 100 beautiful limited editions. His life is documented in this show by a video produced in 1993 by WGBH, Boston's public television station, that gives you a real sense of the man and artist.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com


"Weird and Wonderful: Graphics by Leonard Baskin" is at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 Klosterman Road, on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, through Oct. 29. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 adults, with discounts for others. Free Sunday. 727 712-5762.