Autor: Ed De Heer

The work of the Austrian printmaker Jakob Demus is unlike any other contemporary graphic art because of the exceptional graphic technique he uses: diamond-drypoint.

Demus's earliest prints were made using the etching technique, which he was taught at a young age by Jörg Ortner and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange during a stay in Paris. Early in his career, however, he discovered the possibilities of diamond-drypoint. Like drypoint, this technique is used predominantly to add extra accents to etched designs quickly and effectively - to sharpen outlines, for instance, or strengthen shadows. The only artist known to have created whole pictures by incising them in the copper plate with a sharpened diamond is the German Lovis Corinth, but these were isolated experiments. It was Demus who was the first person to use this technique systematically.

He discovered that there were countless advantages to using diamond-drypoint and that it was better suited than any other graphic technique to give shape to his artistic ideas. The diamond combines the expressiveness and the directness of drypoint with the suppleness and spontaneity of the etching needle. As is the case with drypoint, the design is drawn directly onto the plate without the intermediary of a chemical process. But in contrast to the drypoint, the diamond shears swiftly and smoothly through the copper. The handling of the line is consequently much more like that achieved with an etching needle and is much more spontaneous and flexible than the angular lines of the drypoint. The diamond is extremely precise and responds to the slightest impulse, movement, or pressure. It has to be handled with great care, for although the tip is hard, one wrong move and the diamond breaks. The brittleness of the material is not the only problem facing an artist who works in diamond-drypoint. The tiny lines engraved with a diamond are so fine that the creative process can barely be followed – if at all – with the naked eye. The only way to see the design properly is to pull a print from the copper plate. Printing from the plate is no easy task either. Every print has its particular demands, and the fragility of the print medium is such that as a rule no more than twenty impressions – thirty at most – can be made. Demus saw these obstacles as a challenge.

In a very short space of time, he succeeded in mastering this very difficult technique and developed it into a fully-fledged artistic medium. His prints of flowers and fruit, and above all his 'portraits' of stones bear witness to Demus's unprecedented virtuosity and the immense potential of the diamond-drypoint technique.

Demus sees a certain analogy between the work of the engraver, who works the copper with his diamond until an extremely subtle relief is created, and the activities of the sculptor, who carves his forms out of the stone with his chisel: the engraved line, in all its variations and gradations, models and shapes the light that is reflected by the paper. As far as we know, Demus is the only contemporary artist who works in this technique. Three-quarters of the more than three hundred prints he made between 1983 and zoos were executed in diamond-drypoint.

Demus always works directly on to the plate without a preliminary drawing, although there is a certain relationship between his drawn work and his graphic oeuvre in the sense that particular subjects we know from his prints recur in his drawings. This is particularly true of his silverpoint drawings of stones and flowers. Sometimes, as in Irises a silverpoint drawing dating from 1995, the similarity to his graphic work is fairly direct, but more often the relationship tends to be a superficial one. However, the resemblance between these drawings and the graphic oeuvre goes beyond the subjects. Demus sees the engraver's diamond-drypoint as the equivalent of the draughtsman's silverpoint. Every line set down with a silverpoint is final. The medium does not permit any correction. And, like diamond-drypoint, the silverpoint responds immediately to changes in pressure, speed, and the angle at which the tool is held. Demus has made hundreds of silverpoint drawings in the course of his career. Some prints stem directly from his drawing. One example of this is the series Shore and Coast. This suite of prints, which was published in 1988, is based on beautifully executed watercolours that Demus painted during one of his trips around Italy. Back in Vienna, he made a great many free, rapid variations in bistre, a material that is ideal for rendering the light and skies. These drawings served as the link between the records of the landscape of the Sorrentino coast done on the spot and the prints, which consequently do not depict an actual location but are based on one. In this respect Shore and Coast is an exception in Demus's oeuvre. His prints of stones, flowers, fruit, and seeds and the majority of his landscapes were drawn from life straight onto the plate. The extraordinary aspect of this is that Demus always works from detail to detail without drawing a rough scheme of the whole design on the plate first. This working method, which is revealed in the Levkoje (Gillyflower) - an unfinished print dating from 1988 - means that the artist had to have thought the design through in detail before he made the first mark in the copper.

There is a great diversity of subjects in Demus's graphic work. In the earliest work, landscape and studies of trees predominate. These early landscapes were drawn, almost always from nature, directly on the etching plate. In this period Demus also made several fantasy landscapes and landscapes after examples by the great masters of the past such as Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet, Albrecht Dürer, and Campagnola. Demus also repeatedly took his inspiration from the work of Rembrandt. Tiny Tree and The Oval are the most striking examples of this. Both prints reflect Demus's intense admiration for Rembrandt, the painstaking study he made of his work, and the technical skill with which – seemingly effortlessly – he can emulate Rembrandt's work. Gradually plants and fruit began to put in an appearance in Demus's work. These often impressive prints were drawn with almost scientific accuracy and are the visual expression of Demus’s great botanical knowledge. His interest in depicting plants emerged at an early stage in Christmas Roses I, a plant of which Demus is particularly fond. Between 1983 and 1987 he devoted no fewer than thirteen prints to this subject.

In the 1986-1988 period Demus immersed himself in the depiction of flowers, and it was then that the most important works in this genre were created. The plants are shown against an unworked, white background in all these prints as if they were pages from a herbarium. Among the highlights of this period are Levkoje, Garden Delphinium, Seed Capsules from a Monk's-Hood, Snow Drops, and Fruit of the Hazel-Nut Tree. This imposing series of flower portraits concludes in a masterly fashion with Large Eryngium, a monumental print that is unquestionably among the most important works in Demus oeuvre. Large Eryngium impresses not just because of the enormous variety of shades of grey and black that harmonize superbly with the white of the unworked areas of the plate, but also because of the strong composition, the care with which specific textural qualities of the stamens, the leaves, and the flowers are rendered and the sublime technical execution.

In 1986 Demus made a print of a stone. As far as we know no printmaker had ever tackled this subject before, and for the time being, it remained a one-off experiment because the combination of etching technique and burin with which this print was executed was inadequate for the precise rendition of the complex surface structure of stones. In 1988 Demus returned to the subject, but this time he opted for diamond-drypoint, a technique that he had meanwhile mastered down to the finest points and which enabled him to capture the material properties of stones much more effectively than etching. It proved an exceptionally auspicious decision. Little Bear (Stone from a Stream) is the first of a small but important series of prints of stones and minerals, executed entirely in diamond-drypoint, which thanks to its refined execution, singular subject matter, and exceptional technique has acquired a great reputation among connoisseurs. Prints like Snake-Stones, Persian Stories, Lapis Lazuli, Large 'Schlierenstein' and the fascinating set Little Buddha 1, 2, and 3 are among the most interesting works produced in the graphic arts in the last few decades.

A striking aspect is that Demus often portrays the stones (and other objects too) in pairs. Even the Large ' Schlierenstein ', which to go by the title only appears to involve one stone, proves to be a double portrait on closer inspection. Half hid in the shadow of the large stone, barely visible, there is a second, oval example of minuscule size. As is the case with the flowers and plants from Demus’s earlier period, the stones are placed against a background that is kept predominantly white. Now, however, space is suggested by the addition of shadows in the background and on the surface on which the stones lie. Also new is the framing of some pictures, which is obtained by inking the unpolished file marks around the edge of the etching plate. In this period Demus also started to use text in the picture for the first time. The introduction of the stone marks a move towards greater variety in the choice of subject, which had been confined almost exclusively to landscapes, trees, and plants until this point. As well as stones, shells, insects, and reptiles also put in an appearance at this time. The prints of shells account for the greatest proportion of these works. The shells are shown in the same way as the stones: in pairs, against a white surface and with the indication of a frame. Shadows only occur in Two Rembrandt Shells, a print that quotes from one of Rembrandt's best-known prints. Capturing the complex twisted shape and the decorative pattern with the striking black and white contrasts is a severe test of the etcher's skill. So severe that few would dare attempt it, but Demus accepted the challenge and effortlessly held his own in the confrontation with Rembrandt. Perhaps the most spectacular expansion of Demus's subject matter is the series of prints in which he depicts the earth as seen from outside the atmosphere. In these works, which are based on satellite images, Demus treats the surface of the earth as if it were a large stone in all its diversity and detail.

Demus's philosophy of life is most tellingly summarized in these prints. To him, the earth and all matter are a single animated unity with which he constantly seeks contact in his work. He perceives this dialogue as successful when there has been a true fusion between the artist and the reality he depicts. This almost animist worldview adds an extra dimension to Demus's already idiosyncratic work, which lifts it far above plain realism and gives it a place entirely its own in the history of art.