PRINT September 2016


Hercules Segers

Hercules Segers, Mountain Valley with Fenced Fields, ca. 1615–30, etching, drypoint, oil, and watercolor on paper, 8 7/8 × 19 1/4".

IN HER BOOK The Wretched of the Screen, Hito Steyerl diagnoses the current artscape as a realm of unceasing fall: “a world of forces and matter” unmoored from history or expression, where “the lines of the horizon shatter, twirl around, and superimpose.” This contemporary miasma might find a prehistory in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, a capitalist empire of images, one similarly awash in violence, inequity, and risk. It was there that the printmaker Hercules Segers (ca. 1589–1638) worked in near isolation to create startling, experimental landscape pictures on canvas and paper. Segers’s haunting prints and oils remain unlike anything that came before them in any artistic medium, and they continue to surprise. Idolized by Rembrandt (who owned eight of his paintings) and later beloved by Georges Bataille’s circle, Segers has long disoriented scholars with his eschewal of dates and signatures and, moreover, his stunning formal turn away from a familiarly Netherlandish pictorial idiom of legible abundance. His harrowing, meticulously wrought works are rarely exhibited collectively. They have now been gathered at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam—itself open after a decadelong refurbishment—in “Hercules Segers,” which will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next spring.

Segers grew up in the wake of Northern European iconoclasm. Born to Mennonite exiles fleeing the Inquisition in the get-rich-quick textile city of Haarlem, by 1614 he had settled in bustling Amsterdam. He raised an illegitimate daughter with a woman sixteen years his senior and later sold art in Utrecht. Although around a dozen Segers oils survive (one was destroyed by fire as recently as 2007), he is best known for his rare colored etchings, of which fewer than two hundred exist. Remarkably, these were fashioned from only fifty-four plates and are a combination of etching, engraving, watercolor, and drypoint. The sheets, many the size of a postcard, were pressed on materials as diverse as linen, paper, and burlap, clipped in apparently haphazard ways. At a seventeenth-century moment when many European artists collaborated with quasi-corporate print firms in Paris or Antwerp, churning out suites of reproductive duplicates in the hundreds or thousands, Segers worked alone, crafting prints in tiny runs of two or three. Nearly every exemplar was individualized: painted over with wash, pressed on paper tinted blue, crimson, even ochre. In 1678, Rembrandt pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten likened Segers to a magus, who “drukte ook schilderij”—he “also printed painting.”

The putative subjects in these works are cliffs, hillocks, and trees, although it is visual accident that is really the theme. (The etchings’ titles in the show are mildly desperate additions of convenience.) Across versions of Mountains and Ravines, a Man Walking to the Right, ca. 1615–30, shattered rock, charred stumps, or rotting trees glow in varying gray or blue darkness, submerging or highlighting faceless, wandering human staffage. Segers would cut up and reuse copper plates, selectively wipe parts of his matrices and retool them after they left the press, print on damaged paper, varnish his prints before they dried, even paint directly onto counterproofs (prints from prints). In different impressions of River Valley with a Waterfall, ca. 1615–30, for example, grit and wash occlude clean traces of line, and coronas left by pooled acid hover in the sky, thrashing the synonymy of etched line and precision. Murky traces of the etching process (itself dependent on erosion to make its marks) are visible as the copper plates minutely break down across different states: These are images both of, and wrought by, decay. The effect, at times, is extraterrestrial.

Segers invented a process known as the lift-ground method that was not rediscovered until the eighteenth century. Here, rather than the etching needle, a brush dipped in sugar and ink forms the marks on a plate that the acid eats away and exposes. The process results in mottled and fluid marks that appear more as daubs than incisions, blurring inside and outside, figure and ground. This is not just a connoisseurial nicety. What Segers displays is cross-media experimentation in facture far ahead of its time, a process only a few local collectors seemed to admire. The works, that is, effect a negation of the two modalities of print technology then emerging in the Amsterdam art market: print as the controlled duplication of some original design, and print as globally oriented merchandise. Out of either necessity or verve, Segers reverses the expected product of replicative media—similarity—to produce alchemically unique things. These multiples bespeak not order but entropy.

Segers swapped repetition for difference. Those few sheets showing actual topographic sites (two versions of the Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg, ca. 1615–30, for example) plunge their subjects into darkness or fleck them with cuts and swaths of pigment. Most Netherlandish artists in the moment of Rubens and Hals sought either to carefully control or outright suppress such traces of gesture. Pulsing with primary hues, the luminous sheets evince a Rothkoesque effect, compressing sepias and reds into unruly patchworks of lines. The Rijksmuseum show makes this clear with lustrous comparanda loaned from the storied print rooms of Dresden, Berlin, Vienna, and London. The core holdings of the Segers prints in the Rijksmuseum’s Prentenkabinet, in fact, all come from a single collection that was amassed in Amsterdam soon after the artist’s death.

Hercules Segers, Skull, ca. 1615–30, etching on dyed linen, 2 7/8 × 4 1/8".

THE PHYSICAL FORMS of Segers’s works, his astonishingly disarticulated contours, have bled into an art history nourishing a correspondingly informe vita. Hoogstraten described Segers as a drunkard, a pauper, and a failure, with multiple broken marriages and bankruptcies. He was alleged to have gone unappreciated in his lifetime (something we now know is untrue) and at one point was reduced to tearing up “shirts and bedsheets” to use as printing matrices. Hoogstraten installed the psychohistorical myth of Segers’s mistroostig (disconsolate) character, one that ingratiated him perfectly to twentieth-century narratives of saturnine genius. Carl Einstein, writing in the fourth issue of Bataille’s Documents in 1929, explicitly paired Segers’s prints with contemporary Surrealism, tipping Segers’s etchings over into willful indexes to madness: “The rocks teem with hidden nudes and monsters, symptoms of an atavistic layer,” he wrote. For Einstein, Segers was a nihilist mascot, his work “a disguise, an escape, a suicide,” “a millstone grinding nightmares.” In 1941, curator Gerhardus Knuttel posited Segers’s actual making of the prints as not just a register of insanity but a contributor to it.

More recently, Werner Herzog enlisted Segers reproductions in a five-channel video installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, where they were framed as “nothing less than the beginning of modernity.” Herzog deemed them “states of mind,” which “create an illumination inside of us.” But Segers’s art is thrillingly anachronistic only if we assume a teleology of Western abstraction or some hegemony of a crassly “realist” impulse in Northern Renaissance art. We err if we plot Segers’s work as a reaction against his own complacent era, or a harbinger of disillusion yet to come. Segers’s lines, as art historian Amy Knight Powell has shown recently, disavow the binary of maker and art as much as figure and ground. And yet they do this not via some tired notion of dissolution of aura, so pathologically imputed to the print medium by scholars again and again. Rather, Segers’s smoldering trapezoids resist our identification with any depicted scene, their very facture canceling the idea of a picture-as-view spread before us. The works deny our inhabitation as both beholders and historians, refusing to function either as glimpses of Baroque psychosis or epigraphs for an avant-garde—as traces, that is, of his symptoms or preludes to our delirium. “He was despot and slave to his craft,” wrote the communist Bosch scholar Wilhelm Fraenger in 1922, “his being split between poles of savagery and impotence.”

Degradation rather than interiority may be what Segers’s patchwork oeuvre summons, something like the “poor” image that Steyerl revalues as the prole of today’s high-res art world: worn, dilapidated but heroic, at once defiant and complicit. Segers, like his devotee Rembrandt, lets us glimpse indeterminacy being repackaged as a brand: landscape not as idyll but as labor, barrier, and debris.

According to Hoogstraten, Segers died precisely when he succumbed to his own fiscal free fall, when, destitute in The Hague, he plummeted down a staircase to his death. “Falling means ruin and demise as well as love and abandon, passion and surrender, decline and catastrophe,” writes Steyerl. As Segers’s sheets tumble toward us from a past lifeworld, they resist colonization by art histories of either tradition or revolution. Segers’s geology portends the material residue of the flickering modern image; the residue, that is, of nonbelonging.

“Hercules Segers” is curated by Huigen Leeflang and Pieter Roelofs of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and Nadine Orenstein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It will be on view at the Rijksmuseum Oct. 7, 2016–Jan. 8, 2017; travels to the Met Feb. 13–May 21, 2017.

Christopher P. Heuer directs the research and academic program at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and teaches in the Williams College graduate program in the history of art.