Treasures from the Vault: Leonard Baskin

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

It’s Leonard Baskin’s birthday month! As a teen, watching a clay modeling demonstration at a department store, Baskin decided he was going to be a sculptor. An apprentice to Maurice Glickman, from 1937 to 1939, at age 15 he continued his education at the NYU School of Architecture & Applied Arts from 1939-1941 and, in 1941, won a scholarship to Yale. During his two years at Yale he encountered William Blake, artist, poet, and printer, who influenced Baskin to change his ambition to be all three (artist, poet, and printer) himself. Impressed by the illustrations in Blake’s books, Baskin learned to print and make his own, founding the Gehenna Press, which ran from 1942 until his death in 2000.

Collaborating with poets like Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, and Ted Hughes, Baskin’s bold, stark, and dramatized black-and-white prints were reactions to their written words. In fact, in 1974, he moved to England to be closer to Ted Hughes, with whom he enjoyed a decades-long collaboration and friendship, inspiring each other through their respective art. One of America’s first fine art presses, it is for his work as a printmaker, not a sculptor, that Baskin is most often remembered; even though he himself maintained that he was first, and foremost, a sculptor.

A black-and-white woodcut of a dying face amongst a grove of thistles.
Leonard Baskin, American, 1922-2000. Death Among the Thistles. Wood engraving, 1959. Museum purchase, 1965.40. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The FWMoA holds two prints by Leonard Baskin; the one shown here, Death Among Thistles, is a wood engraving. Rejecting the Abstract Expressionist movement popular at the time, both Baskin’s monumental sculpture and woodblock prints focused on figures and examining the human experience, dwelling particularly on mortality and his faith, Judaism. The son and brother of rabbi’s, Baskin titled his press after a line from Paradise Lost “and black Gehenna call’d, the type of hell” as well as the Hebrew word for hell (Gehinnom or Gehenna (Hebrew: gê-hinnōm)). We can see the examination of the human experience in Death Among Thistles as the stark, white, moon-like face appears dead amongst a field of thistles. At first glance, what appears to be a rising or setting moon is more obviously a face, mouth gaping and open to show teeth. A prickly flowering plant, a thistle’s leaves sport sharp thorns, an adaptation that protects it from herbivores. Dramatizing their sharpness through size and a play of light and shadow, Baskin’s thorns may be responsible for the lines running down the unknown face. Angst-ridden, the figure’s closed eyes appear to be crying. Baskin, while believing humans to be the center of the universe, also recognized their imperfections and cruelty. Despite a bleak outlook on the human condition, Baskin was firm in the idea of final redemption, a juxtaposition featured heavily in his works. Has this pained human face paid the price in a field of thistles and earned redemption?

In attempting to visualize the human condition, his studies in Florence and Paris opened Baskin’s mind to the Renaissance artistic traditions and methods, particularly their fascination with the human figure. His sculptures also took on the human form, he created a bronze, seated figure for the Holocaust memorial in Ann Arbor, MI and a bas-relief sculpture for the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. His numerous artistic endeavors earned him various honorary doctorates, prizes, and accolades.

For 20 years, starting in 1953, Baskin taught printmaking and sculpture at Smith College and, for a year before that, he taught printmaking at the Worcester Art Museum. The Gehenna Press Archive was acquired by the Bodleian Library (Oxford, England) in 2009.

See more of FWMoA’s print and drawing collection in the Print & Drawing Study Center, open Tuesday-Friday 11am-3pm or by appointment with our Curator of Print & Drawings, Sachi Yanari-Rizzo.

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