Engraving – the art of making marks on a hard surface – often gets overlooked in favour of more mainstream visual arts like painting and sculpture. But, the fact is, engraving is one of the oldest forms of human creativity, dating back thousands of years ago to prehistoric times.
Engraving was widely used to illustrate books and newspapers, prior to photographic reproduction, and was elevated to the status of fine art by the insightful works of Albert Durer. Nowadays, computer-controlled engraving enables us to create our own personalised engraved gifts out of practically any metal or glass object.
In this guest post for BigArt, I shed some light on three famous engravings from the history of humankind.
Newspaper Rock, Utah
Dating back in some cases to over 12,000 years, petroglyphs are ancient prehistoric rock carvings, which can be found in almost every country in the world. These take the form of marks and symbols made on the surface layer of boulders and rock faces to reveal the coloured layer of rock underneath.
Named after the Greek words petra (stone) and glyphen (to carve) this form of engraving is remarkable for the similarities in the types of figures appearing across geographically diverse locations. Some say this is evidence of Jung’s theory that all human brains have an underlying structure, causing us to think the same way and draw the same things.
Whether or not this is true, I don’t know. But petroglyphs seem to indicate the emergence of human creativity, a secret language, or simply Stone Age man’s desire to assert ‘I woz ere.’ There are many opportunities to see this unique phenomenon around the world, among the most impressive being Newspaper Rock in Utah, which contains the largest collection of petroglyphs known to man.
Albrecht Durer ‘Melencolia I’
Fast-forward a few thousand years, and the art form of engraving really took off with the work of Albrecht Durer in the Renaissance period. Durer’s insightful ‘Melencolia I’ functions much like a doctor’s assessment, methodically diagnosing the symptoms of melancholia (or depression) for all to see.
The central figure adopts a pose of head resting on hand, commonly expressing a troubled mind in sixteenth century portraiture. At her feet lie the unused tools of discovery and creation. Keys and a money bag at her belt symbolise power and wealth. Her bright eyes glare out from the darkness, indicating intelligence and ability.
She is the sad and gifted intellectual, with a great deal of potential but the mysterious inability to realise it. A bat-like creature hovers in the sky with a sign to diagnose the condition, as if to say, “Yes madam, you’re suffering from a severe case of melancholia.”
Before the invention of photographic techniques, engravings were commonly used instead of paintings to illustrate books and newspapers. Among the most famous is Martin Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare for the title page of his First Folio – one of only two known portraits of the poet.
Droeshout’s skill as an engraver is undeniable, but his claim as an artist is much more open to question. Critics have often wondered how such an inadequate portrait could have been selected to illustrate such an important book!
The relationship between Shakespeare’s head and body is clumsy to say the least. And, to put it more bluntly, in the words of critic Northrop Frye, the portrait ‘makes Shakespeare look like an idiot’. There is also some speculation as to whether the engraver was actually the younger Martin Droeshout or his father of the same name.