Print Quarterly March 2009
MALTE SARTORIUS IN VENICE. One of Germany's best-known photographically based Realists, Malte Sartorius has made several visits to Venice since 2003. The resulting drawings and etchings provided the basis for an exhibition at the Landesmuseum, Oldenburg, which travelled to five other German venues, ending its tour at the Städtische Galerie, Wolfsburg. The accompanying catalogue, Venedig: Malte Sartoriui Zeichnungen und Radierungen (Bonen, Kettler Kunst, 2007, 224 pp., 24 col. and 180 b. & w. ills., € 28), was edited by the artist himself and Hartmut Kettler, and includes an essay by Jürgen Schilling, who had printed Sartorius's plates. The volume reproduces all 105 of the etchings and aquatints that Sartorius made of greater Venice between 2004 and 2006, and acts as a continuation of the catalogue raisonné of his prints. Details of edition sizes, numbers of proofs and of states are provided. There have been three previous volumes in this series.
Sartorius is a prolific printmaker - 1,178 plates have been catalogued between 1972 and 2006. He is primarily an etcher, and added aquatint for just a handful of the prints in this book. His prints have been widely exhibited in Germany and Spain, where there is a 'school' of photographically based Realist printmakers. In Britain he has had shows at the Glasgow Print Studio, the Goethe Institute and the Francis Kyle Gallery, as well as exhibiting at the Bradford Print Biennale.
Schilling compares his Venetian prints with those of Meryon and the contemporary Canadian, Alex Colville, with whom Sartorius shares a dryness of approach. As in the case of Meryon, some of his subjects are oppressive and have a sinister air. Like Whistler, Sartorius avoids the hackneyed views of the Italian, and goes out of his way to eschew any of the calli, rii and hidden little courtyards that the American etched and drew. This must surely have been deliberate. Only two prints of 2006 in this catalogue of the Riva degli Schiavoni are reminiscent of Whisderian subjects, and even these take a different view, the two plates together forming a continuous panorama. Sartorius also captured the Riva from a much higher viewpoint than the American.
Both etchings are exceptional in depicting the active presence of Venetians and tourists. In the vast majority of Sartorius's plates no figures are to be seen, although their presence is sometimes indicated by abandoned boats and clothing hung out to dry. High walls occasionally even make one think that this is the city of the dead. The atmosphere is grey, airless and sometimes ghostly. There is never any mist rising from the canals or lagoon. Many of the etchings are of outer Venice, Murano, Burano, Torcello, Chioggia and the spit of Pellestrina. This is the Venice of some of Donna Leon's detective stories. The hour often seems to be just after dawn, before people venture out, and the leafless trees indicate winter. Occasionally there are evening views, but only one nocturne - of a kiosk, presumably on the edge of the Giardini. There is a meticulous attention to detail. If there is a single artist called to the mind of this reviewer, it is the Dutchman Willem Witsen with his photographs of Amsterdam canals.
Sartorius has also made many drawings of the city, but these are markedly independent of the prints. From the illustrations in this catalogue it is very hard to find direct comparisons with individual etchings. Some of the artist's most recent-Venetian etchings have been a series of views of campanili captured from an unusually high viewpoint, one suspects from scaffolding rather than from a light plane. Very occasionally Sartorius etches an interior. In these, in his details of boats and barges and of the detritus of the fish-market, one recalls his meticulous studies of the contents of his studio and his still lifes of 20 years before. There is no hint of Romanticism even when Sartorius etches abandoned rusty boats far from the Grand Canal.