Lost in the Detail: Naum Gabo's Monoprints

The National Galleries of Scotland recently acquired twenty monoprints by Naum Gabo (1890-1977), fifteen of which are currently on display at New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville. Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, explores how the world-famous sculptor tried his hand at monoprinting.

Naum Gabo Opus One 1950 The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina and Graham Williams

It is March 1950 and Naum Gabo (1890-1977), the world-famous sculptor, is stabbing a mahogany table leg. Born in Russia, he had lived in Germany, Norway, France and then from 1936 to 1946 in England. He was part of the St Ives group in Cornwall, alongside Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. He then moved to Woodbury, Connecticut, USA.

Things can turn on a chance encounter or conversation. This story pivots around William Ivins Jr., the retired curator of prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A near neighbour in Woodbury, he had got to know Gabo and had the feeling the sculptor might do something interesting if he tried his hand at printmaking. Ivens was persistent: he went round one day with ink, woodcutting tools and Japanese tissue paper.

Naum Gabo Opus Seven unknown The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina and Graham Williams

Was it Gabo’s table leg or did Ivens bring it with him? It was probably Gabo’s. No print expert would suggest trying to engrave in a rock-solid piece of mahogany. But that’s what Gabo did, producing a small and fairly rudimentary engraving in the sawn-off end of the table leg, and printing it up on the tissue paper Ivens had given him. You can tell that the dots in the middle have been made by stabbing at the wood with a knife or little engraving tool. Titled Opus One, it was the first of a dozen or so monoprints he made over a twenty-five-year period.

Naum Gabo Opus Eight unknown The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina and Graham Williams

Gabo’s next prints were infinitely more sophisticated. He used larger, professionally prepared panels, made from holly and cherry woods - tight-grained woods which take fine, engraved detail. Gabo was famous, above all, as the first sculptor to explore the potential of new transparent plastics. His sculptures had three-dimensional form, yet you could see right through them. It was a new way of treating space. His goal, now, with these prints, was to do something similar on a flat surface, to somehow render transparency and solid form.

The word ‘Mono’ comes from the Greek word ‘monos’, meaning single. Monoprints are single, unique prints. That is not to say that he only took one impression from each engraved woodblock. In fact, he made forty or so of each, but none of them is the same. He inked up the block differently each time, sometimes spreading the ink thinly, sometimes thickly, creating a variety of tones, textures and colours. In some, the image is reversed and in others he painted over the final print. He printed each one by inking up the wood block, putting fine tissue paper over the top and rubbing the back of the paper with his fingers or a spoon. He could spend a day on each one.

Naum Gabo Column 1921 - 1922 / 1975 The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina and Graham Williams

Late in life, in 1976, when he was in his mid-eighties, he gathered the prints together, selecting twenty examples of the twelve he liked best. He died the following year, and the sets came out posthumously. Gabo’s family, Nina, Graham and Gareth Williams, have given us examples of all twelve prints, plus variants of some and a few unpublished trial prints. The gift has been made through the Government’s Cultural Gifts Scheme and comes not long after the family’s incredibly generous donation of one of Gabo’s most important sculptures, Column, 1921-22/75.

We have fifteen of the monoprints on show at New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville. They’re amazing things to look at, up close. Your eye can get lost in the detail, and so can your mind. They suggest something microscopic, something you might see down a microscope. And, at the same time, something unimaginably vast, glimpsed through a telescope in deep space. They’re not ‘about’ anything, other than the magic of form, colour and texture and how they act upon the imagination.

22 December 2021