Press Contacts: Craig D'Oogie (202) 707-9216
Public Contact: Jill Brett (202) 707-5223
December 31, 1993
"Caprices, Grotesques, and Homages: Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press" Opens at the Library February 17
The Library of Congress's Rare Book and Special Collections Division is celebrating artist Leonard Baskin's work of 50 years at his private press, with the exhibition "Caprices, Grotesques, and Homages: Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press." The Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division has long had an interest in collecting and displaying the best of 20th century fine printing, and it continues in that tradition with the opening of the exhibition on Thursday, February 17, in the Madison Hall, first floor, Madison Building.
Leonard Baskin founded the Gehenna Press while a student at the Yale School of Art in 1942 (the name coming from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost: "And black Gehenna call'd, the type of Hell.") Following the model of his inspiration, English artist, poet, and mystic William Blake (represented by Baskin works in the exhibition) Baskin's first hand-printed book was a slim volume of his own verse, On a Pyre of Withered Roses (also on display).
Baskin's book work is but one side of his repertoire. A renowned graphic artist and sculptor, he is currently working on monumental bas reliefs commissioned for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial is scheduled to open in April 1995, on the 50th anniversary of FDR's death. The 124 items on display in the Library's exhibition will include -- in addition to the fine books -- drawings, prints, proofs, woodblocks, etching plates, photographs, and manuscripts. This varied material is divided into four broad themes, reflecting Baskin's interests. "Adventures of Fine Printing" will show what drew Baskin to printing and aspects of the craft that most excite him. "Natural and Grotesque Imagery: Baskin's Bestiaries" explores his renderings of animals, insects, and birds --stylized, naturalistic, and fantastic -- and showcases his extraordinary collaborations with British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.
The theme "Homages" is central to Baskin's world view. Feeling isolated in a period when figurative art has not been highly valued, he has reached out to artists of the past whose work or principles he admires, memorializing them with idiosyncratic, and sometimes imaginary, potraits and pocket biographies. These have often been influenced by prints in his own exrtraordinary collections.
Finally, Baskin's humanistic erudition is evident in the "Literary and Political Collaborations" produced at the Gehenna Press. With the help of the press's longtime editor, Sidney Kaplan, Baskin has reissued little-known ideological and literary texts and collaborated with some notable contemporary poets. Three of these - - Archibald MacLeish, Anthony Hecht, and Stanley Kunitz -- have close associations with the Library of Congress. Another, James Baldwin, was so impressed with Baskin's drawings of Shakespeare's Othello that he agreed to collaborate on a book, a project that turned into a memorial after Baldwin's death.
The exhibition shows the range of Baskin's printing at the Gehenna Press, from "Pax," a broadside with woodcuts he made in 1953, to his most recent book, Jewish Artists of the Early and Late Renaissance, a volume of etchings and words. The press's extraordinary natural history depictions, Horned Beetles and Other Insects (1958) and Diptera: A Book of Flies and Other Insects (1983), demonstrate Baskin's feel for detail. Collaborations with poets, writers, and other artists have been a hallmark of the Gehenna Press. Capriccio (1990), with poems by Ted Hughes and engravings by Baskin, is but one of their many associations. The Library's exhibition will demonstrate how Baskin advanced the tradition of earlier masters of fine printing by pulling together varied strands of influence and invention. As Baskin said of himself, "People like me, who care about printing -- the architect of the page -- constitute the tiniest lunatic fringe in the nation." However, the fine bookwork he describes as a "secondary passion," his powerful graphic style, and the words -- eloquent, lively, opinionated, and contentious -- he uses to describe his passions, will capture the imagination of a much larger and appreciative public.
A public lecture, presented by Leonard Baskin, is also scheduled with the exhibition opening, on Wednesday, February 16, in the Mumford Room, sixth floor, Madison Building, beginning at 6 p.m.
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