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Etchings for Primo Levi

Etchings for Primo Levi by Jane Joseph
Review by Paul Griffiths of an exhibition at the Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno

Gallery 4: 19th January - 11th March 2012; opening event: Saturday 28th January, 2pm

Jane Joseph is a painter, draftsman and printmaker whose reputation, since the late 1970s, has been based on her integrated approach to both her subject matter—notably, the post-industrial Thames bank of West London—and her methods of working, in which her drawings and prints, in particular, create a strong and distinctive perception of reality.

In 1999 and 2001, Joseph was commissioned by the Folio Society to produce etchings to accompany their special editions of works by Primo Levi, If This is a Man (published 2000) and The Truce (2002). The two suites of etchings now exist in two modes; as images that relate to specific texts in each book, and as sets of the original prints to be exhibited.

Both sets of prints have been shown together once before, in 2004, at the School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth. The Mostyn's present exhibition, timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January, is another opportunity to view all these prints together. On the 28th, January Jane Joseph will be in conversation in the gallery with Emma Hill, Director of the Eagle Gallery, London, with whom she has had a long term working relationship. This show also coincides and interacts with the exhibition in gallery 3, Anselm Keifer: Artist Rooms.

The key to understanding these prints is the intimate relationship between the Folio Society, as publishers of Primo Levi's books, Joseph's role as illustrator, and the book's actual texts. The Folio Society asked her to choose the specific texts that would be illustrated, and left her to decide what form the images would take, creating a situation in which she had considerable creative freedom. Joseph has remarked that she was fired by Levi's writing, by 'his prose so full of the most wonderful analogies', and feels strongly that his writing 'doesn't need embellishment of any kind' and that 'in a way it should not be illustrated'. Joseph's fundamental achievement is that her approach to the selection of texts, and to the production of images to accompany them, amounts to a complex act of literary as well as artistic interpretation, resulting in the creation of diverse, ambiguous and allusive relationships between Primo Levi's books and her etchings.

With one exception, an image of a tap, none of the images directly represents scenes or incidents from the books. Most images can be understood as observation-based landscapes, located in familiar urban, rural or post-industrial situations, or as still lives that have a life of their own. In each book, only one or two images stand apart from such matter-of-factness. For example, in If This is a Man, a nocturnal scene of shipwreck, a tonally sombre aquatint, is dramatically illuminated by a shaft of moonlight penetrating the clouds. Such singularly theatrical images operate as a localised 'rupture' of the fabric of Jane's dominant way of working. The actual subjects of most images place us, the readers, simultaneously within and outside the contexts of the books; in the latter situation, bringing us closer to 'home', away from the reality of the Nazi Lager, but not necessarily comfortably so. The rupture of the shipwreck underscores our discomfited state. Yet it is in keeping with the complexity of these prints that the same image might also release us into the world of narrative, of fiction even, offering us some kind of relief and rescue.


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