A special printing technique developed within the context of the early history of photography is the cliché verre. Particularly French artists of the nineteenth century, the landscape painters working within the sphere of influence of Rousseau, Corot, and Dabuigny, experimented with these possibilities of “drawing with light” enabled by the sensational invention of photography. These were painters who also produced a substantial body of graphical works. The technical innovation of the cliché verre was most likely attractive because it bore the promise of facilitating the replication of drawings through a process less complicated than lithography. However, this later proved to be a misconception. Certainly very appealing was the lightness with which one could use a stick or needle to inscribe the light-sensitive emulsion on the glass plate. In fact, when given the opportunity to examine these rare prints in collections—particularly those by the painters of the Barbizon School mentioned above and working from nature in the forests near Fontainebleau—one understands the special attraction of this technique. The airiness and light-infused quality of the images as well as the strange kind of paper employed distinguish these works from the heaviness of common printing techniques. However, the prints themselves were produced by alchemical processes, which were very alien to artists accustomed to traditional techniques, who did not wish to invest the effort in learning these skills. Thus, this promising form of producing images was soon forgotten by artists.
(On the technique: to produce a cliché verre, one coats a glass plate with a lightproof substance (often either dark paint, printer's ink, or collodium). A lighter layer can be added on top, and the plate can then be placed on a dark background in order to aid the drawing process by making the marks more visible. One then uses an etching needle to score the drawing onto the coating on the glass plate. During the drawing process the lines then appear black on white due to the dark surface placed beneath the glass. Where the coating has been scratched through, the plate is then translucent. The plate is subsequently exposed onto a sheet of glass coated with a photosensitive emulsion or onto a sheet of photographic paper, and the drawing etched into the glass then appears as a positive, mirror-inverted line drawing, which can thus be replicated at will by means of this photochemical process.)
These cliché verre prints, which soon disappeared from the common repertoire of printing techniques, represent an early expression of the nascent rivalry between painting and photography. Proponents of photography long attempted to establish it as the new painting, until photography finally attained such a level of recognition independent of the fine arts, that it was accepted as an artistic medium in its own right. As one might recall, photography was actually a result of the invention of central perspective, which was apparently the first artistic device capable of portraying space realistically and led to the development of the camera obscura as a visual aid, with its “photographic” image enabling the artist to make an exact sketch. Albrecht Dürer invented a viewfinder, or frame spanned with vellum, which helped him produce his “photographic” images. However, at that time there was no knowledge of light-sensitive chemicals, by which one could preserve the picture of reality on paper.
The special photographic technique of the cliché verre remained long forgotten. Inspired by the emerging technique of the photogram, artists including Picasso, Man Ray, and subsequently Sigmar Polke, later developed the cliché verre into a unique art form, which capitalized on the sheer endless possibilities offered by the materials. Among such works are the prints of Eliška Bartek, which date from the current century.
Today one seldom hears about the successful revival of this hybrid technique. It plays no visible role in contemporary art. So what encouraged the painter Eliška Bartek to make use of this antiquated process in an era dominated by an almost inexorable flood of digital images?
One might also ask, what is the special appeal of this technique that cannot be attained by other formal means? As a painter, Bartek approaches the possibilities offered by “drawing with light” in a correspondingly painterly manner; the photographic images appear as if they were black-and-white negatives of paintings, whose colors seem to have mysteriously disappeared from view. Before becoming immersed in the vital mystery of these images, one experiences the restless tension of wishing to see these colors that have been apparently hidden from view. Nevertheless, alone the tonal range from black to grey offers an incredible spectrum of color, which soon dispels one's desire for an accustomed array of bright colors and blends. The mysterious appearance of a negative image is thus associated with the idea of looking within. This goes far deeper than the experience of the x-ray image so familiar to us, although these first images of the insides of an intact body had tremendous impact, not only on science. Although serving to precisely illuminate human physiology, these first images also cultivated the mystery of all clarification as simultaneous obfuscation.
Eliška Bartek's images are not x-rays, but they are inner pictures, which seem to have extricated themselves from traditional painting. These enigmatic paintings of light portray a search for visual answers to existential questions that probe the limits of being. The viewer automatically associates the images with parapsychological states of consciousness suggesting another, extrasensory world, of which no images are normally accessible to us. At the turn of the last century spiritualist societies attempted to objectively portray in photographs the messages that they had managed to summon from this unfathomable world. They did not manipulate or alter the surfaces of the negative, but instead they created unusual constellations and lighting effects that were then “captured” by the camera as proof of their existence. In the metaphysical scenes from his series entitled “magischer Determinismus” (Magical Determinism) the German artist Bernhard Blume made reference to this early “evidence” of extrasensory processes, which was produced with the help of the camera.
When Andy Warhol—an artist obviously invested in the here and now—produced his famous flower paintings in 1964, not many people took note of the black grass in the background, in front of which colorful flowers bloomed. However, reproduced in negative, this element of the silkscreens allowed these joyful flower pictures to simultaneously be seen as harbingers of death, which subversively made reference to vanitas in the midst of a glamorous society. In 1974 the artist Joseph Beuys included a negative image of his portrait on the poster for his spectacular performance with a live coyote. This “x-ray” image of his head suggested an inner power, the mysterious capacity of the shaman, the guise in which Beuys presented himself to the coyote.
In this sense, the artist Eliška Bartek speaks of the hidden images lying in the coffers of the soul, which our memories are only capable of opening from time to time. More is stored within us than we need to hold our daily world together. So-called memory cannot be recalled freely, like the mathematically organized memory of a computer; instead it is a space of reminiscence bound to countless psychic circumstances. In borderline existential situations long-lost shadows of the past can suddenly appear in sharp focus, as if we were suddenly in communication with a much larger realm, extending beyond ourselves.
Eliška Bartek transmits danced and sung pictures, which she is capable of creating in the euphoria of this alchemical world with the most unusual things and materials: from skin cream to powdered copper, flour, and noodles. The exposure fuses it all together in a maelstrom of expressive figures of light, which set no limits to the imagination. The viewer envisions psychedelic visual worlds, landscapes, flowers, and plants reaching into the cosmic. Suddenly we experience the endlessness of the heavens, and then we are immersed in the diversity of the materials of this planet. Everything relates to the story of a fairy-tale world, a poetry surpassing any image of true vision of reality. Cross-like forms bear witness to the age-old symbols of worldly spiritual relationships. Prayers, thousands of years old, rise up out of these dynamic images as if a book abandoned to decay had been suddenly opened. On other images these soft forms have given way to crystalline protrusions, which seem to emerge like craggy cliffs in a dark landscape. Once again the face of the mother appears from the distance of this unexplored expanse like the famous vera icon, The Veronica, which assumed the eternal features of God in human form. In Bartek's images these features are alternately blurred and articulated; they come forward and recede into eternity, where everything mortal is sustained. The simplified and yet awe-inspiring face of this immediate relative does not seem to have originated from the rational world of “intentional” memory but instead seems to follow the kind of intuition that only meditation is able to produce. The secret of the mother is the real theme running through these physiognomies written onto glass, not the likeness of a real person and long-time companion on life’s path.
What is better suited for recalling the image of the mother than this photographic technique, which employs the secrets of chemical processes to produce images appearing real and unreal at the same time. From this eternity comes music, an abstract sequence of tones that move us deeply. Eliška Bartek, also a practiced musician, creates, with the help of the cliché verre, the score for a flowing field of energy, which seems playable for a moment, even before we learn to hear its eternal quality in the image. Eliška Bartek's works use a captivating visual language, which opens up into a realm testifying to far more than artistic proficiency. It is a realm of almost shocking reality, whose magic allures us like a distant fairy-tale land.
* Director of the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof -Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin
Blume, Eugen. 'The Secret Photography of Eliška Bartek'. Eliška Bartek. Geheime Fotografie. Eliška Bartek. 1st ed. Berlin: Photo Edition Berlin, 2014