Tessa Sidey

'Lines in Space', Printmaking Today, Autumn 2004



 The classic science fiction satire Flatland, written by Edwin Abbott Abbott and first published in 1884, centres on a two dimensional world. The reader encounters a constrained life of straight lines and regulation, where movement, irregularity, colour, feeling, light and shade are absent or outlawed, and women appear as little more than a one dimensional point. A chance encounter with a stranger from Spaceland sets up an alternative dialogue with the third dimension. This romance of many dimensions has long been a favourite of Agathe Sorel, who in her prints and sculpture has spent over forty years exploring the dimensional and expressive possibilities of the engraved line. 1

Sorel was born in Hungary in 1935, into what would have been considered as a dangerously intellectual middle class family. The war saw the Sorel family persecuted by the Nazis while, under the Stalinists, a grandmother living in former Yugoslavia and an aunt in the capitalist West provided further ground for discrimination. Her mother, fluent in four or five languages and highly qualified, intended to become a chemist but finally had to compromise and study art history in Vienna where she met her future husband, a young doctor completing his specialist studies in psychoanalysis. The rudiments of printmaking were learnt at a lycée school in Budapest, though it was under the aegis of studying stage design that Sorel first entered the Academy of Applied Arts. Strings were pulled to secure a move to the Institute of Fine Arts, but the dominant creed of the time, kitsch social realism, failed to impress and was fiercely resisted. The compulsory classes on anatomy and perspective, rooted in structural analysis, has nevertheless continued to be a permanent influence. ‘Each part of the skeleton would be considered with an eye for precision and analysis; drawn separately and then joined up. We had a live model, and as we drew it, we placed the skeleton inside it. …having considered the function of each bone and the special distortions of a particular pose’2. It was at this time that Sorel met her future husband Gabriel (Gábor) Sitkey, a fellow Academician, studying textile design.

The 1956 Revolution saw Sorel and her mother move to England, settling in London, where she enrolled as an illustration student at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. There she encountered a mixture of liberation and entrenchment, ‘The pedestrian realism of the Euston Road school was dominant…Printmaking was beginning to emerge, led by Robert Erskine at the St George’s Gallery, but the etching press was still in a corner of the graphic design studio at Camberwell, together with a beautiful Albion press used mainly by Michael Rothenstein, Tadek Beutlich and a few interested students’. Significantly it was Michael Rothenstein (1908-1993) who suggested the move to Paris to study under Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) at the Atelier 17 Workshop. He himself had only spent a few weeks on three occasions at Hayter’s. With a Gulbenkian Scholarship however, Sorel was able to stay for two years between 1958 and 1960.

Sorel has been unequivocal in pursuing her own interests as an artist, but it is the Hayter adherence to experimentation, self-reliance and, a critical dialogue with process that has shaped, and continues to shape, her working practice. As she describes,’ We took weeks to work on a plate, layering one technique over the other. We were encouraged to adopt an almost schizophrenic approach, alternating between the creative and the critical frame of mind. Sometimes one got into a total mess, and had to rescue the plate by making fairly uncompromising and drastic changes’. For Hayter such skill and perseverance was part of a wider philosophy where exploration and mutual exchange between artists made a difference to the world.

In particular, it is the theory surrounding the spatial properties of the engraved line, eloquently described by Hayter in New Ways of Gravure, that appears to have had the most impact on the work of this early period. Vagabondage and Vue sur la Montagne are both single plate colour etchings, but black inked intaglio lines and associated textures drive the directional movement that dominates these images (1, 2). This becomes the singular technical vehicle in Fumée, and in PETRA is absorbed into an irregular and ravaged plate edge and surface (3, 4). Sorel’s earliest commercial success, with the St George’s Gallery and then the publishers Editions Alecto in London, and on selling trips to America, was certainly achieved under the Hayter label. At the same time it was not difficult to see that this all embracing doctrine had to be physically distanced and re-negotiated in order to achieve any semblance of an independent voice.

Photographic process began to play a role in 1964. This was significant when both Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi had begun to use photography, only in their case concentrated on screenprinting and on working collaboratively with the printer Chris Prater. Sorel’s preference lay in maintaining technical control and she acquired her first press and studio/ home base in Fulham in 1960 3. Photo-gravure was chosen to render a veiled architectural presence on the title page of Le Balcon. The ground-breaking production of Jean Genet’s play at London’s English Arts Theatre in 1957, set again a revolution, had left a deep impression on the student who had only recently escaped Hungary. It now became the source for a sequence of images interpreting Genet’s world of deception and illusion. ‘The use of embossing, colours, photo-etching and garish applied gold was invented to underline the theatricality of the scenes. The plates were punched, drilled and collaged to accentuate the colour and to suggest an almost three-dimensional quality…’ (34-36). 4

Traditional spatial relationships are completely abandoned in The Wise and Foolish Virgin, 1966 (27). Here instead of single plate printing there is a constructivist approach towards assembling found (set square) and folded (brass) low relief printed on top of the photographic and the linear base plate. A two stage, and later four stage, process of printing now seemed a more practical format for exploring the boundaries of a constructed space. ‘The base plate is printed first and then marked up on the bed of the press to register the free floating cut out pieces to be printed in the subsequent stages’ The results expanded the possibilities for visualising and structuring space, as in the interplay between photographed industrial window and the two dimensional rendering of a sculpture in Dark Satanic Mill (11).

A new found confidence received a decisive boost in 1966 with the award of a Churchill Fellowship to work and travel in America. Plastic had already been used for TAO, a suspended form of three alphabet letters and accompanying shadow (49). An introduction to the pioneering plastics manufacturer Charles Kanev in Philadelphia however opened up a world of industrial techniques and tools that seemed equally suited to an artist’s appropriation 5. The Russian constructivist Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and the Hungarian member of the Bauhaus, László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), had both promoted plastic earlier in the century as a vehicle for moving rather than static relationships. In the same spirit, Sorel became intrigued by the spatial possibilities of this transparent material. The engraved line could now work in tandem with the third dimension, or in even more suprising ways. Moholy-Nagy had after all listed at least 44 different perspective systems in 1937 6. It was this theory that was put into practice in a series of new prints and sculptures dating from 1967 and 1968.

Biplanes and Catamarans (9) is engraved on cobex, a PVC material traditionally used as a master for engraved graphs and instructions, on the backs of radios amongst other things. The great advantage lay in it being both strong and flexible. The process of heat branding was employed for a powerful rendering of structure to emerge in the foreground of this image, in contrast to the air–borne qualities of drypointed lines set at a dramatic angle. This same surface re-appears in the related Raft sculpture, only now the source for intaglio-inked lines extending like the trajectory of a worm into a tubular tunnel crossed by six rods. Diffused light provides another translucent ingredient for activating flow and movement. (50).

Perspex provided Sorel with a physical foundation for projecting line in space. At the same time, she began to find in modern science and mathematics a parallel interest in dimensional dynamics. Specifically, via computer graphics, the work of the Hungarian geometer and engineer Imre Pál and the American mathematician Tom Banchoff began to supply her with some extraordinary configurations. 7,8 ‘Like Banchoff, I was interested to work with simple geometric shapes to explore all the possibilities for projection. He would work with complex figures and equations, I would work in an experimental way…for example, with a simple transparent cube with shadows cast both inwards and outwards. I would simply draw around them and later make a 3-D version of it (Echo Chamber (56) )’. Fifteen years later another interpretation of the cube reappears as extended and projected upwards between two vertical windshields in Hovercube (64). These expressions of continuity and progression aspire to be both beautiful as sculptural shapes and arresting as visual discoveries.

Initially plastic off-cuts, mostly tubular, were acquired from America. The turning point came with the discovery of a plastics scrap yard in London which has remained a zealously guarded source for the ready made. ‘I would stand under a crane about to break something up and shout stop when I saw something interesting’. As distinct from the constructivist practise of cutting or moulding acrylic, Sorel was drawn to the surrealist notion of the found object. Camberwell colleague and friend Michael Rothenstein had already absorbed existing wooden textures, and later photography, into his expansive mixed media prints. She now began to appropriate existing shapes, such as the arching shell form in Oyster (59), the full cello base of Titania (68), and forgotten remnants of coiled lumps of extruded plastic as the basis of an investigatory and engineering process in the studio.

The choice of a transparent material represented a singular move for an artist working in the late 1960s and early 70s in England. At the time, heavy metal sculpture was dominant in the art college system and receiving international recognition. Sorel, herself now a college lecturer, appeared to be placing herself outside of a male tradition of stone carving and heavy-welding. The term space engravings, even as late as 1989 when adopted as the title for an important exhibition organised by the Kent Institute of Art and Design, seemed not only appropriate but necessary, ‘when my work still wasn’t considered as sculpture’.9 Retrospectively this may be seen to have backfired, or at least remained unhelpful in the removing of restrictions commonly associated in this country with the label of specialist printmaker. Nevertheless it is significantly under this term, when exhibiting in Europe, that Sorel has received her widest recognition as a sculptor.

Certainly the creative process for this artist has rarely been about a purist approach towards materials or techniques, but one where transparency allows for the cannabilising of any number of devices suggestive of an expanded space. The arched flatness of Welcome Arch (54) contradicts its architectural theme, while at the same time provides a two dimensional surface for photographic transfers from the architecture of Frei Otto 10. Elsewhere concrete objects are treated as strangely self-contained, demanding, for example, that the viewer move towards a small purple glass container to read a curious Welcome insignia.

Unlike contemporaries who were drawn to the mechanics of the kinetic, Sorel has preferred not to make use of electrical devices. Rather she concentrates on employing the simplest of spot lights to highlight the projections of her chosen materials. The flamboyance that makes up Macho the Cock comes from engraved and welded lines working in tandem with the outward projections of shadow, a heightened display of colour, and the actual time spent by the viewer following and moving around these sculptural lines. In her own words, ‘The movement comes from solid objects which have a line or lines or scored or engraved into their surface. When you start walking around, the lines strengthened by the optical properties of the material, also start moving’. The inclusion of real (side) mirrors attached to flat projected shapes only adds to the possibilities for imaginative interaction with this sculpture (60).

The early concentration on Perspex as a foundation for black intaglio lines gave way in the 1980s to additional methods to meet the demands of weight and scale. Works such as Macho the Cock and Grotto for Torus could no longer be worked on a table, and Sorel began more ambitiously to work with Camberwell graduate Mark Stevens on incorporating steel armatures into her work to achieve a greater stability (11). Lines would then be engraved by crawling around and on top of the piece. ‘I would mark up in felt pen, and then engrave on both sides of the Perspex so that the line became an intergral part of the whole structure. I was not aiming for a precious line but a vigorous gestural mark that could be read from a distance’. Millimetres of difference in depth would be realised with a motorised router, often combined with hand-worked drypoint and mezzotint, and the use of the pantograph router for strong geometric contours. The idea of exposing colour against a neutral surround also became an increasing concern, so hand-painting with acrylic or glass paint or stencilling with car spray paint also became part of the process.

Such increasingly elaborate application of a graphic language into sculptural form is unusual among contemporary artists. The American Frank Stella is perhaps the most prominent comparison. With very different results, both these artists have freely appropriated devices that move between the graphic and the sculptural. For Sorel, the 2 and 3 D versions, different as they are, often reinforce each other as they consider different manifestations of light and perspective.

The starting point is either small sketches or watercolours on single sheets of paper, often combining pieces of applied collage. These fluid drawings are characteristically worked in figuration rather than abstraction to register the idiosyncrasies of an observed incident or landscape. For example a farmyard scene of a goat climbing over a hill rock and a primitive, cork screw shaped wine press gave rise to the sculpture Ego the Goat (63). This playing of the figurative against the abstract has remained a constant feature, and one which continues to be reappraised.

The most fruitful environment for these vital periods of drawing and painting has been a second home on the Canary Island of Lanzarote since the early 1970s. Until recently it has not provided any access to a press. By extension, it is only when back in London that there are the facilities to see if initial ideas can be taken a stage further, either graphically or in a three dimensional form.

Women in Waves originated as a scene of a man carrying a woman into the sea, but finally concentrated on a singular female form. The sculpture is made up of open slabs of Perspex bolted together at radical angles. At one end a female head with out- spanned hair extends aggressively into space, while opposite there is the enlarged contour of a breast. Multi-directional lines and sections of colour only add to the sense of agitation as the viewer is encouraged to move and see more but without a fixed point of contact (67). The associated print of the same title is, achieved by photocopying the flat parts of the sculpture, and is by comparison restrained in its physical display. The focus of attention has shifted to a disjointed arrangement of perspectival lines evoking the idea of internalised dimensions in a figurative form that is happily buffeted by a surface of sea colour (30).

In the selection and repetition of certain geometric shapes Sorel has established a vehicle for communicating through archetype. The sources characteristically stand outside the world of art history, drawn from a select group of scientists and architects associated with the fourth dimension and with non-Euclidean geometry. Imre Pál’s intersection of revolving cylinders appears as a male shape in Amazon (61) and Divine Proportions (22); the elegiac Titania (68) becomes the container for extravagant lattice shapes favoured by the architect Frei Otto, as well as a double spiralling form to be found in Tom Banchoff; the out spanned form in flight in Birds (19) appears as a female element in Historic Couple (20). Such deliberate acts of reiteration across media and function, allows these forms to take up different roles depending on the character and narrative of the composition.

It is the archetypal that permeates Catalana Blanca, a book and large single sheet series of five black and white images published by Sorel under her own imprint in 1999 (36-38). The title comes from a cacti species that grew in her garden in Lanzarote, and is strongly identified with the island. An infection saw the plants wither and then die, leaving only ossified fibres, ‘like an elaborate engraving or anatomical display of veins and nerves’. At the same time, a new shop on the island provided access to what in effect was the only local resource for printing, a photocopier. Wrapping a section of cactus remains in ‘my grandmother’s white damask towel and my son’s little vest from years ago’, the process began with a standard machine, and a lengthy phase of cutting up and collaging the results. The second stage of working with a powerful digital copier allowed for trials in enlargement, reversal and manipulation. The results, far from being flat and dull, were extraordinarily textural, slicing chiaroscuro effects into figurative life of considerable beauty and authority. Alongside poems from Sol Absolu by Lorand Gaspar, originally published in 1972 12, the reader is invited to engage in layers of invention, ‘perhaps more authentic than the one imagined by the inhabitants of the island, for whom this may seem an illusion’13.

Sorel prefers not to elaborate on the differences surrounding the photocopier and her customised Hunter Penrose press. In both cases they are faciltators for ideas and intentions, and in appropriating the digital, or possibly the computer generated in the future, she is part of an established tradition of artists who are drawn to the challenges posed by new technology. The photocopier, as automated printer, remains dependent on the quality of decisions and input being made at the time of printing and, in this instance, has been favoured for its capacity to extend the dialogue with going concerns. ‘You could call the initial work découpage, which has to do with drawing even though the drawing is done entirely with scissors, like the Matisse paper cuts. I generate the source material myself on a photocopier, often scanning in 3-D objects and textures, composing and playing around with abstract constructions, using children’s drawings in the sand (The Book of Sand) or trying to describe character without recourse to realistic portraiture…’.

Although various museums have acquired the prints and artist’s books, the most recent work has not been without controversy, and indeed, in 2003, saw it excluded from the Originals 03 exhibition at London’s Mall Gallery 14. The discussion on originality that this instigated took place at Sorel’s studio home in Forest Hill. In an opening address she emphasized that the facility for obtaining printed objects with digital or optical technology now available should never be confused with the difficulties involved in producing good and meaningful art. This continues to demand ‘training, hard work, time, effort and ideas’.15

The proposition that the linear imprint can take any number of forms is eloquently embodied in The Book of Sand (40-42). In the footsteps of children drawing on Lanzarote’s airport beach, Sorel began to use a rake to draw in the sand. As she writes in her introduction, ‘Prints are described as infinitely repeatable statements and the beach gives a wonderful example of this’. Rapidly outlined figures, profiles, heads, footprints, and strange visual coincidences with the real, were then photographed from several angles. The effects of spatial distortion were taken on board, and the photocopier employed for the final intricate stages of reconstruction alongside the surrealist poetry of David Gascoyne16. Far from abandoning the engraved line, this artist is relishing using contemporary devices for new approaches to this most ancient of themes.

Tessa Sidey

Birmingham, March 2004


1 A Square (Edwin Abbott Abbott), Flatland, London, Seeley and Co, new and revised edition 1884

2 Interviews conducted by the writer and the artist at the artist’s home in Forest
Hill between 2002 and 2004. Unless stated otherwise quotations come from
this source

3 Sorel and Gábor Sitkey lived at 14 Irene Road, Fulham from 1961, moving
to 34 Wilton Road, Belgravia in 1979, and from 1997 to a studio/ home in
London Road, Forest Hill

4 Agathe Sorel, Introduction to Le Balcon, a portfolio of ten etchings and title
page, first published in 1964.

5 Charles Kanev was the Director of Laminated Materials Corporation outside

6. László Moholy-Nagy, The New Bauhaus and Space Relationships, American
Architect and Architecture, 151, New York, December 1937

7 The Hungarian scientist Imre Pál lectured in engineering at the University of Budapest, and is best known in the West for his stereoscopic drawing. His titles include: Descriptive Geometry with 3 D Figures (University of Budapest) and Phase Equilibria Spatial Diagrams, 1945 and 1970 with Ferenc Tamás.

8 Thomas F Banchoff, former professor of mathematics at Brown University, Rhode Island, is celebrated for research into the fourth dimension using computer graphics. He met Agathe Sorel after she projected one of his images of a cube during a lecture on her work at Brown University in 1991.

9 Space Engravings & Other Works by Agathe Sorel, Kent Institute of Art and
Design, Canterbury, 1989; and subsequent tour to USA, France, Sweden and

10 Frei Otto (b. Saxony, 1925) a German writer and architect who pioneered
the use of mathematical, computer-based procedures to determine shapes.

11 Mark Stevens became Senior Sculpture Technician at Camberwell College
of Art, London

12 Sol Absolut by the French poet Lorand Gaspar (b.1925) was published by
Gallimard, 1972

13 Elsa Lớpez, Catalana Blanca, published by Agathe Sorel, February 1999

14. Sorel ‘s digital work was rejected on the confused grounds of not meeting
aesthetic as well as technical criteria for this particular exhibition.

15 Meeting held at Studio of Contemporary Art, Forest Hill on 27/1/2004.

16 Poems by David Gascoyne are taken from Selected Poems, Enitharmon
Press, 199