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CMA Part 2: The Etchings of John Taylor Arms

About Whoville’s dulcet yuletide chorus, Dr. Seuss’s garlic-souled Grinch exclaimed, “Oh, the noise!  Noise!  Noise!  Noise!”  What if he had cried, with jeers or joy, “Oh, the lines!  Lines! Lines!  Lines!”?  He would have visited the Cleveland Museum of Art’s tour-de-force exhibition, “Modern Gothic: The Etchings of John Taylor Arms,” closing on Sept. 30.  

Line sustains etching, a medium which involves needle-drawing on a resin-coated metal plate, immersing it in acid to cut needle lines, then inking and impressing it on paper.  Line in the show’s sixtydazzling etchings, drawings and copper plates by American John Arms (1887-1953) reflects his profound piety.  Striving to evince and laud divine creativity, he said, “… before I finally put aside needle and acid, I pray that I may etch one perfect single line.”

His prayers were answered.

Arms aborted legal studies at Princeton for architectural training at MIT, where Prix de Rome winner Désiré Despradelle taught him.  Arms drew, for his thesis, an impeccably even cathedral in hard-pencil contours, visible only under a magnifying lens.  Later, at Carrère and Hastings, an elite Manhattan architecture firm, he designed a building for gilded age titan Henry Clay Frick, who wanted his new Fifth-Avenue mansion to make Andrew Carnegie’s look “like a shack.”

Carrère’s classical Beaux-Arts style failed to sate Arms’s hunger for evocative architectonic lines à la Canaletto’s canalsand Piranesi’s ruins.  Arms’s wife gifted him an etching kit in 1913, the year European Symbolists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves and Cubistsstudded New York’s Armory show.  The progressive city’s Ashcan journalist-painters eschewed genteel nostalgia for gritty cosmopolitanism; Stieglitz promoted dreamy pictorialism.  Amid such modernity, Arms published his first print, “Sunlight and Shadow” (1915).

Arms’ picturesque Gable Series debut follows and flouts long-held aesthetic conventions.  The representational Norman house recalls Arms’s spiritual mentor, the traditional printmaster Charles Meryon (1821-68); his “Etchings of Paris” (begun 1850) also feature aged yet animated medieval gables, rooflines and dormer windows.  The scene’s spontaneous sketchiness and mid-plate suspension effectively summon Arms’s compositional godfather, the avant-garde expatriate James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).   

Whistler owed thanks to Commodore Perry who, in 1854, penetrated the Tokugawa shogunate and opened Japan.  Inundating the West were ukiyo-e woodblock prints, in particular Hiroshige’s series “One Hundred Views of Edo” (1856-7), and Hiroshi’s later shin hanga prints.  Ukiyo-e’s oblique angles; vivid tonalities; cropped, simple forms; and bold near-far juxtapositions deeply influenced Whistler.  In turn, his “French Set” etchings (1858) and “Thames Set” (1871) impacted Arms’s entire oeuvre, especially his Aquatint Series.

While etching his Maine Series, Arms revived aquatint, a laborious, time-intensive process yielding finely modulated tones.  A sea-loving wartime naval officer and sailor, Arms aquatinted a brief, historical Ship Series as well as patrolling, search-lit vessels and planes in opaque colors.  He likewise aquatinted still, horizon-lit sailboats in delicate, even transparent hues.  “The Butterfly” (1920), a crisp, japonesque marine in “hanging-scroll” format, enchants; its snowy peaks, crossed sails and silvery reflections seem silently afloat on air.

Butterfly – 1920. Courtesy CMA.

Devout to Lord and line, Arms forsook secular for more sacred interpretations and aquatint’s minimal lines for etching’s fluid strokes to staccato flicks.  “West Forty-Second Street” (1920) captures Manhattan’s energy; atypically, Arms includes human figures which, unindividualized, churn as cogs.  But, the salient Bush Tower soars spire-like; so, too, the Woolworth Building in “An American Cathedral” (1921).  In “The Gates of the City” (1922), Brooklyn Bridge arches register as lancet church windows sacramentally illuminated.

Exhibit-furnished magnifying glasses reveal capitals, moldings and other elaborate ornament in more than Arms’s “ecclesiastical” New York Series.  His series of gargoyles, French and Spanish churches, and Italian scenes teem with microscopic Gothicdetails.  Arms revered Gothic architecture as man’s consummate achievement, gloriously synthesizing concrete technique and intangible spirituality.  Not only Arms craved his “beloved Gothics”’ pre-industrial truth and beauty.

The treatise “The Stones of Venice” (1851), by the British art critic and moral crusader John Ruskin, inaugurated the 19th-c. reformist Gothic Revival.  Ruskin’s Victorian compatriot, the architect Augustus Pugin, and the American architect, Ralph Adams Cram, advanced it.  Arms’s “Le Penseur” (1923), portraying Notre Dame’s gargoyle Le Stryge (“the vampire”), embodies it.  From stippled, crosshatched, weather-pocked stone, he emerges less Paris’s undead bloodsucker than its world-weary yet vigilant sentinel.  

France, as Arms’s prints suggest, proved his Gothic soul’s home during decades-long pilgrimage to hallowed European sites.  In “Rocamadour” (1926) and in the Cleveland Print Club commission “Saint Paul, Alpes Maritimes” (1927), lush, velvety lines pick out monastery roofs at heaven-thrusting elevations.  Horizontal panoramas of “Normandy Noon” (1936) tracking Arms’s process from transfer-drawing silhouette to well-developed etching show, throughout, only a cross-crowned pinnacle reaching into bright sky.

Luminous ethers particularly mark Arms’s French and Spanish prints, despite etching’s monochrome.  “In Memoriam” (1939), Arms’s bravura homage to his deceased mother-in-law, bathes Chartres Cathedral’s north portal in tones of light so graduated as to appear aquatinted.  Further, in dissolving the triple-portico’s brick-and-mortar weight, the lithe figural columns, lace-like tracery, and otherwise filigreed facade conjure otherworldly radiance.  In “La Colegiata, Toro” (1935), the Romanesque church glows on paper of lambent azure.         

That light-blue, adorning exhibit walls, recalls Arms’s handmade blue-green paper and mania over diverse paper weights, weaves and hues.  He preferred antique papers’ unique tones but also printed on contemporary, often neutral Western and Japanese sheets.  Experimenting with cool grays to warm yellows for effect, and leveraging his virtuosity as a self-styled “tonal draftsman,” Arms color-lit his prints of Venice’s Byzantine-Gothic structures and its shimmering waterfront.

In “Shadows of Venice” (1930), nuanced lines on light-blue ground counterpoint the Pont di Rialto’s silver efflorescence and pewter mattes with tenebrous Grand Canal waters.  Upon creamy paper, “Venetian Filigree” (1931) describes with laser-like linearity the intricate Ca d’Oro palazzo, its meticulously patterned, depth-denying façade and aqueous reflections.  Similar precision renders “Venetian Mirror” (1935) another inspired geometric abstraction.

Arms stratospherically revitalized American graphic arts.  Some may opine that his stirring, living lines are pedantic, mechanical transcriptions; others, that his insistent materiality obliterates the transcendence he conveys.  To that chorus, Grinchy might wisely rejoin, even after his heart has grown three sizes, “Oh, the noise!  Noise!  Noise!  Noise!”


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