Duncan Scott

Delaxroix to Dubuffet

Graveline Museum

Tamarind Papers


Space Engravings, Sculptures and Maquettes
in Perspex and Steel

Agathe Sorel's perspex sculptures and space engravings are unique: I know of no other sculptor working in this medium who is able so to combine organic, geometric and associational elements.

She inherits from constructivist precursors such as Naum Gabo and Lazlo Moholy Nagy, the means and intention to deny sculptural mass, replacing it by an art of transparent open volumes, whose translucency permits the manipulation of actual, rather than virtual light. Some of the sculptures have elements which hang or float, allowing gentle kinetic movement, shifting polychromatic shadows and reflections which double apparent volumes and introduce new symmetries. These extended images are suggestive of time, duration and relativity.

Michael Rothenstein has written very perceptively of how, in Agathe Sorel's earliest perspex sculptures, the engraved line wraps itself round or traverses the space frames


combining the properties of engraving with three dimensional form: in this way she is able to make her linear configurations float, flow or glide in space.

Agathe has recently herself described this period of internal interaction between her print-making and the first space engravings:


I was always interested in abstract configurations of space but could not leave the expression of figuration, observation or emotional content behind. There has to be a way to synthesis - but the path was fraught with difficulties. I started working with perspex, and during my travels in the USA had the opportunity to explore more of its properties.


At first I tried to use basic transparent shapes solely as a vehicle or a surface onto which I engraved lines. The lines were inked black - thereby rendering the basic shapes totally neutral, almost invisible. Gradually the ideas developed and the shapes themselves took on more significance.... after years of that experimentation, a method presented itself which was capable of synthesis and change.


Occasionally I succeeded in creating objects which by carrying a multitude of experiences in a simplified shell came alive like autonomous beings - representing concrete reality. They even seemed to take on an active role capable of reacting to their environments. I am thinking particularly about optical effects, movements, bulges, distortions of lines generated within the material by people walking around them or the ones caused by different atmospheric and light effects. These beings had undeniable attraction to certain objects and images with which they entered into temporal marriages producing new meanings.

I believe that this brief autobiographical passage provides the clue to the power and uniqueness of these works. They rest on a deliberately unstable synthesis of opposites, a temporary connection and equilibrium between contrasting tensions. The impermanence of the connections is essential in ensuring the capacity tor change and growth. As Agathe says: "The rules of the game have to be reinvented evey time."

The synthesis may be between, on the one hand: figuration - the seen, the drawn emotional content, the organically perceived and felt; on the other hand: abstraction - the modern constructivist tradition or alternative spatial geometries. The very titles suggest other confrontations, running the gamut from Mediterranean myths to motorbike machismo or to Lautreamonfs chance encounters on a dissecting table, while works like "Echo Chamber" and "Too' conduct us elegantly into speculations on 3-space, 4-space and hyper graphics.

Agathe Sorel combines technical mastery and a zest for experimental making through process with a profound awareness of twentieth century art within the European cultural tradition.

From Hungary and a European respect for intellectual speculation Agathe brings a healthy refusal to separate art from science and philosophical enquiry. Her work is holistic, making those connections which are essential if we are to make sense of a fragmenting and divided world. Henry Moore, contributing Notes on Sculpture" to The Listener m 1937, insisted:


Order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious. Both sides of the artist's personality must play their part.

In the same article Moore stressed his awareness that the meaning and significance of shape and form in sculpture is substantially dependent upon associational and psychological factors, probably including those related to "the countless associations of man's history". Freudian and Jungian psychology has contributed much to our understanding of the complex roots of creative imagery.

Recognizing this Agathe Sorel is at one with Moore in insisting on achieving a personal synthesis between two of the most potent tendencies in twentieth century European art, abstraction and surrealism, and she can affirm that her workshop is a domain of discovery which needs to erect no frontier guards to deny cultural history, poetry, myth or metaphor.

The artist is able to risk this openness to multi-layered conceptual and poetical associations because of what Rothenstein identifies as


Imaginative purpose with an acute awareness of the right technical means to fulfill that purpose - an awareness, moreover, that is quite exceptional in qualify.

Aqathe Sorel's maquette and drawings "Step into the Future: (but be aware of the Past)" an entry for the Westminster Sculpture Competition is a design tor a sculpture of a steel and laminated perspex. A towering obelisk rises behind a giant engraved perspex foot incorporating fluorescent lighting and additiona night Sighting within the fluorescent base. This piece, in clear and blue translucent perspex, the foot edged by the incandescence of the red fluorescent tube, ottered to match the metropolitan magic of its Central London location by its nightly metamorphosis thus establishing a brilliant analogy with the city s own nocturnal transformations.

Works such as "Echo Chamber" and "Line in Space" exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre one-man show of 1974 explore space, ambiguity and illusion. I he engraved line, on transparent perspex sheet virtually in 2 space, can evoke the possibilities of space through axonometric projection while engraved contours, traversing cylinders and conic sections subvert Euclidean geometry and are themselves transformed as our viewpoint shifts.

This group of works reveals Agathe Sorel's keen study of physics, optics, the psychology of perception. An element of creative play in the |uxtaposition ot modes of mapping is often present recalling Marcel Duchamp's later work, as well as some of the procedures and experiments recommended by Bill Hayter in New Ways of Gravure.

Since these works were first exhibited the historic dissociations between the arts and developments in theoretical physics and mathematics have been countered by a growing interest in hypergraphics, led by advances in perceptual psychology, computer graphics and holography, and a growing awareness ot their interactive potential. The artists recent reading has tended to validate the interactive connections she then established essentially intuitively.

"Two Birds" is a water piece. Constructed in perspex on polystyrene buoys, the two elements of the sculpture float in mutual confrontation or attraction, with slender, curved antennae vibrating gently above the mirror plane of the water. Without the symmetry imparted by the reflection this piece would appear incomplete.

"Oyster" of 1983 and a plastics engraving of the same year "Historic Couple" are closely related in their imagery. "Oyster" is again a two-piece sculpture. The large suspended form in transparent perspex with its continuous curvature is engraved in three colours. It can be read as a shell, a chair or a female torso — this feminine identity is more explicit in the related print. The other element, a standing rectilinear solid raises the T of its arms in an asymmetric upward curve in empathy with its partner.

"The Lure of Lost Cultures" is a sculpture derived from drawings made on Lanzarote. Against and upon the descending geometry of a wall ambiguous forms have come to rest. Fossil stones or torsos fuse in the mind's eye. Continuity and change are simultaneously evoked.

In "Amazon" a slender arch enshrines the dominant image of the single breast - "prier de ne pas toucher?" Above, the crowning cross-like form, perhaps a variant Brancusi's truncated male torso, inverted, static, appears to evoke former authority, potency transferred. The insubstantial triangle makes up the trinity, and the arch unites while yet dividing.

The most recently completed of the space engravings is also one of the most ambitious. 'Macho the Cockerel', completed in 1988, is a perspex and welded steel sculpture whose starting point was the confrontation, on the cliff above Papagayo Bay in Lanzarote, of a cockerel atop an elaborately rigged motorbike, festooned with mirrors, chrome, and yellow and scarlet custom-sprayed decoration, and his retinue of noisy hens. The exuberant teenage machismo of the machine and the arrogant pose of the king of the roost as he preens himself before these inverse images, coalesce in this piece.

The intersecting arches of handlebar and frame, the reflections of the cock's comb in each of the flanking mirrors, gave rise to fresh problems of complicated perspective systems and projections. The representation of the three-dimensional image on the two-dimensional surface paradoxically evokes once more the theoretical possibility of a fourth dimension. Like 'Too', the transparent elements are constructed so that they can be pivoted through ninety degrees, thus what is reflected must operate throughout these permutations.



It is as a printmaker that Agathe Sore! is best known, and her prints have entered private and major public collections around the world. The space engravings, an increasingly parallel preoccupation, have also been exhibited, apart from the most recently completed. However the large range of drawings, watercolours, paintings and collages, from which this exhibition presents a selection, have remained little known hitherto.

Since the early 1 970's, when the artist and her family discovered Lanzarote, its unique interior landscape, climate and character has been the essential location for annual recharging of physical and creative batteries, a compulsory catalyst and energy source to fuel me longer months of making in studio and workshop, of teaching and research.

Close to Capricorn, on this Canarian island the elements assert their power: sun's heat and fire below - warm sea - hot sand - strong wind - moon and tide - molten rock, and fertile earth abut. As dusk approaches colours deepen: Prussian blue, through clinker black to oxidized crimson, a lava field in the middle distance confounds the aerial! perspective. The sky turns green and saffron, while pale pink and dove grey succulents amid the apple and lemon lichens provide a paste! foreground to the dramatic background of Fire Mountain. Vines and figs are grown in pits, each with its horseshoe lava wall. Goats, donkeys, camels, mules, by their grazing, ensure the rarity of trees, the lunar highlands serving as backdrop to many a sci-fi epic.

In watercolour, pastel and ink, the landscape studies encapsulate these elemental contrasts: in this island terrain Nature herself is forming a Cubist collage, not a Constable. It is work in progress, and the reassurance of the familiar is nowhere in sight. Gaia is in surrealist vein, in league with myth and Minotaur.

As the tourist jets fly in the beaches fill with athletes, bathers, family groups and youthful lovers. A living anatomical anthology, a plein-air life class for the artist, opportunities for swift notations that Rodin would have envied, provide rich fare for sketchbooks. Back in the studio figures, landscapes, mythic themes combine.

In the process of selection, repetition and elimination, mixed marriages of form and field, of figures and objects, forge fertile metaphors and give birth to fresh progeny. In several of these works one or more of the characters asserts an archetypal presence


After studying art in Hungary, Agathe Sorel attended Camberwell School of Art in London where she was taught by Michael Rothenstein. The enlightened exception to what Sorel regarded as 'the cozy drabness of Euston Road realism', Rothenstein advocated experimental procedures, the taking of risks and directness of response and expression. With his awareness of Continental art, he encouraged the artist to change direction and, crucially, he recommended that she go to Paris to Bill Hayter's Atelier 17.

Atelier 17, re-established in post-war Paris in 1950, was a fulcrum of constant experiment and development, most significantly in the extension of the possibilities of colour etching and the combination of intaglio (usually monochrome) printing and relief printing, with rich applications of colour by means of rollers and stencils. The collaborative concept and practice of the Atelier as creative laboratory has been highly influential in the modern renaissance of printmaking, and in 1958, when Agathe Sore! arrived in Paris, it was not unusual to see such visitors as Picasso, Miro and Vasareiy at the many gatherings held there, and those working in the studio ranged from dedicated novices to famous artists and teachers, all treated by Hayter with an equally challenging questioning of values, assumptions and conventional practice.

Upon Sorel's return to England, she established a small studio in Fulham, and it was here that the highly acclaimed album inspired by Genet's Le Balcon was published in 1965. The title page for Le Balcon (Cat.57) combines line engraving, photo-engraving and colour aquatint. Carmine and gold, the curtain is to be raised, but already we see beyond it. Genet here proclaims that fantasy /s the reality: drama, role-playing, the world of imagination and desire is real. Genet's characters demand of each other that they admit the reality of their sub-conscious lusts, fears and cravings. What they wish or fear to be they become in a territory where beauty, terror and role-reversal coexist. In 'Le Judge' the deadly contest between Judge and Whore has begun; he wishes her whipped, she flaunts her trade and taunts him. The Executioner's whip flails the empty air in impotence, swift lashes of the burin. Stadium floodlights flare. The Judge, ritually shod in the buskins of the classical drama, must crawl to his seductress and lick her toes before her tawdry thievings are confessed. Heavily embossed, his wig is his humiliation and halo to her foot. The clock records her fee. In this exchange, who is now the hunter, who the prey?

The immediate precursor to Le Balcon was The Miracle Worker' (Cat.41) Engraved with burin and hammered nails, the print also incorporates images directly offset from three small votive tablets on to copper and bitten. These traditional Greek votive tablets are usually made of embossed and chased silvered copper or brass, so that they naturally constitute a primitive form of printing block with a long history in the Eastern Mediterranean

'Beginning' is again a burin engraving, largely monochrome but incorporating areas of strong colour. The artist is here concerned to preserve the quality of the engraved line, which is complemented by the flat areas of primary and secondary colour, mostly printed simultaneously with the intaglio of the burin plate, while the polygonal form at the base of the composition is deep bitten in a second printing. Maternity is the theme - a first view of the first born - and the clarity of the image matches the emotional impact of the event.

The use of photo-etching in Le Balcon and subsequently in 'Dark Satanic Mills' from the early 1970's, was innovative in the context of English printmaking, but was also being pioneered by Michael Rothenstein in such works as 'Sport' and 'Night City'. A photograph of a nearby Victorian paper-mill in Fulham is here combined with a three-dimensional, abstract, sculptural form which here assumes analogical association with a treadmill. The photographic images were 'collaged' together in the negative stage, and the plate was subsequently engraved. The open window and roof lights beyond create intriguing perspectival vistas, with the spatial ambiguity compounded by the manner in which the central form, derived from one of the earliest space engravings, appears to hover somewhat in front of the picture plane. The angular composition abandons the rectangle, while retaining the homogeneity of the pictorial space.

Temptations', c.1976 , is one of the first prints with a Lanzarote theme. To the left the camel caravan is making its way up Fire Mountain through the soft red picon. Juxtaposed with this volcanic landscape is a close focus patio still life with oleander flowers, shells and a pair of giant knees. The base plate is sugar lift aquatint with engraving, upon which are superimposed layers of colour printed from plastic plates. The final plate (the black one) is engraved with a hand held mechanical router, chosen here as a more powerful alternative to the burin line of earlier works. Agathe Sorel's highly innovative development of plastics engraving as a print medium dates from about this time, and came as a natural and almost inevitable adaptation of techniques she was already deploying in the space engravings. The predominant and seductive pink, salmon and Siena colours of the right hand foreground are here complemented by the deepening turquoise green of the Lanzarote evening sky.

The evolutionary, gestating quality of the recently and currently seismically active Lanzarote landscape is rendered powerfully in Mother Nature' Volcanic slopes basking in the heat of Capricorn evoke analogy with giant female thighs and buttocks. Seen through the transparent lines of the engraved perspex form, ambiguous contrasts are engendered, organic and abstract, eternal and temporal, she and he. The polystyrene base plate in Siena combines both coarse lines burnt with a red hot wire and finer lines in drypoint together with some mezzotinting. The second plate is engraved with a hand held mechanical router, and the third printing, which adds areas of flat cold grey tone to the mountains is from cut out pieces of thin plastic, producing some indenting of the paper.

'Roots' is a plastics engraving with small areas of monotype. The starting point was a series of drawings of the twisted, bleached roots of ancient fig trees. Surface printed from plastic plates in conscious mimicry of Sino or woodblocks, they combine with two geometric forms, whose plates combine both intaglio and surface printing (the beige colour). The areas of monotype are restricted to enlivening the colour and texture of the two asymmetrical volcanic stones in the foreground. As in 'Dark Satanic Mills' the forms are unconfined by the rectangle, and the work pays affectionate homage to Rothenstein's woodcut and collage prints of the early 1960's, while nevertheless remaining firmly rooted in the artist's own sources and development.

Related to the artist's investigations into alternative perspective conventions, discussed in the first section of this catalogue, is 'Divine Proportions' 1985 Here the theme is pursued for its pictorial possibilities. The two energetic female torsos on the single sheet and the more formalized draped woman in the bound volume derive from figure drawings in the beach sketchbooks. The chalky hues of a 'Homage to the Square', the schematic male torso, which one recognises from the space engravings, and the double cones of female breasts are artistic devices from the artist's increasingly confident formal vocabulary here brought into subtle and harmonious co-existence.

The chalky lines resembling litho crayon are actually made by carborundum bits wielded freely in a hand-held electric router. Thus the artists working processes start by painting onto transparent plastic, reversing it, and engraving the inverse, avoiding tracing or mechanical transfer techniques. Throughout this body of work The processes and practices of drawing, painting, making prints and forming sculptures are inter-related, each medium's discoveries suggesting fresh means elsewhere, while in the process of proofing other ideas arise, other changes are made.

In The Water Hole' 1985 Fuenteventura goats, a waterwheel and a swirl of sand, separate photographic images, originally tiny and progressively magnified by Xerox copier, are transfer-collaged onto one photo-iitho plate, their sought after graininess deriving from this precocious enlargement. A variant upon the sculpture Amazon' (cat. 9) provides the main structural element in the composition, flanked by the profile head of the young goatherd and a gourd-like flask, both contained beneath Amazon's dynamic scarlet bow. The photo-iitho plate was printed on the etching press, as was the background yellow, from a sheet of veneered plywood, while additional colours are printed from engraved polyvinyl plates.

'We Wish You Were Here' 1988 (cat. 51) is unusual, in that it is very directly derived from the large watercolour of the same title, In both a child's powerful schematic vision of two bathers, advancing across Indian red sand against viridian sea, is halted by encounter with more complex forms, of the sort familiar from the space engravings. The motorcycle mirrors recur in the 'Macho the Cockerel' series, while the polygonal crystals in the foreground are further evidence of the artist's interest in 3-dimensional geometry, in this case inspired by forms illustrated and discussed by Imre Pal.

The exhibition concludes wth four prints which are examples of work in progress. 'Musicians' are unfinished trial proofs, stages towards the determination of a print. Here a group of Canario students gather to make music on the beach. As the work proceeds it undergoes an evolutionary process which distances it from the original sketchbook drawing. The left hand figure we now relate to the writhing youth from El Greco's 'Laocoon', while the boy on the right with the tall African drum, the girl on the left and the central figure with its Peruvian profile, are each incisively simplified and characterized. In the fourth state each figure has been accorded its own colour: red, orange, brown and blue.

On the nudist beach seaward of Arrecife Airport the lotus calm of 'always afternoon' is shattered by the roar of tourist jets in 'Airport Beach' . A male nude and his female companions, line and colour - blue, orange, red - react and recoil. On the regular cone of the extinct volcano in the centre background is etched a giant 'Jacob's Ladder' water collector, an aljibe which resembles, for those with special insight, a magic landing strip, an invitation to explore the lunar landscape beyond. Between foreground and background reclines three-piece sculptural form, descendant of Bracelli's baroque 'Bisarries' 10, monumental, immobile, countering the agitation of the foreground trio.

In this exhibition it has been possible for the first time to reveal the continuity and interelationships within this substantial corpus of work. The immediacy of the sketchbook drawings and the small landscape watercolours affirm a continuity of visual research and direct response to specific subjects and locations.

In the more complex syntheses which are brought into being in the collages, compositions, sculptures and prints the potent and transforming alchemy of idea and process, of association, analogy and drama is enacted.

The richness of themes and the experimental approach to materials in this group of works, as in the closely related prints, drawings and paintings, combines a continuing ability on the part of the artist to surprise, delight or disconcert us. At the same time the authorship of these works is never in doubt: Agathe Sorel has evolved a strong personal voice and vision, and this provides the basis for risks and excursions. The completion of one work is never allowed to form the recipe for the next work, nor does she permit herself to compromise when it comes to obeying what Gabo called 'the logic of life and natural artistic instinct': the artist puts it thus:

At present regrettably, elegance and purify are sacrificed for meaning. The struggle goes on but having come so far I enjoy the wide horizons and refuse to use blinkers of any shape or colour.

In my view this is not a cause for regret but for celebration.

Duncan Scott
December 1988