Peter Michael Stephan Hacker

Hector Saunier’s art is a celebration of the expressive power of line, texture, space and colour. His prints manifest a unique aesthetic sensibility and creative powers of the highest order. He is a master of the engraved line, a refined etcher and an unrivalled, technically innovative printer, who can play with coloured inks as a virtuoso musician plays with harmonies. This technical virtuosity is coupled with an abstract visual imagination that enables him to create beauties and mysteries of irrational colour spaces evocative of ordinary experience, even though transcending it.

Born in Argentina in 1936, Saunier came to Europe in 1961 and began working with the great artist and experimental printmaker Stanley William Hayter at the famous Atelier 17 in Paris in 1966. Atelier 17 had been the powerhouse of creative intaglio printmaking of the twentieth century since its establishment in the late 1920s. Saunier learnt his craft primarily from Hayter, who rapidly recognised his talents. He became an assistant at the Atelier, and worked closely with Hayter for the next twenty years. In 1978 he became Associate Director of the Atelier, taking charge of it during Hayter’s absences. On Hayter’s death in 1988, Saunier became co-Director of the Atelier, now renamed Atelier Contrepoint, which still flourishes at 10 rue Didot in Paris.

It was Atelier 17 that the techniques of simultaneously polychrome printing, capitalizing on differential viscosities of the inks, had been invented by Hayter and his associates in the 1940s. These methods, which developed over the years, made possible direct creation on the plate of a polychrome print, and so the development of the image in immediate interaction with the medium. They also made possible the total integration of form and colour in the creative process. And they opened up an unprecedented range of colour effects that can be realized at the hands of a master.  This Saunier rapidly became – a master of colour and its creative possibilities in the intaglio print. He has ceaselessly experimented with simultaneous polychrome printing and since Hayter’s death has made new discoveries of hitherto undreamt of sophistication and subtlety. These are evident in the brilliant coloured images that he has made, images that disclose not the beauties of nature, but the beauties conjured up by a rich and refined creative imagination.

Saunier’s engraved line is bold and dramatic, swirling and swooping through space, swelling and shrinking, penetrating deeply into the plane, twisting and returning to the surface. It possesses an autonomous expressive power of movement, plasticity and elegance. Sometimes the device of a white halo is utilized to lend it even greater vibrancy and volume. Deeply engraved white line (“gaufrage”) that sits high up above the picture plane is occasionally used to impart greater depth to the imagery. Wonderfully woven webs of line animate the colour spaces. Open-bite etching, soft-ground texturing, and masks during inking are employed to create multiple picture planes, receding depths, and irrational superimposed or interpenetrating planes.

His imagery is not related to surrealism, but his creative procedures are to a large extent attuned to the surrealist conception of the automatist, unconscious sources of creative inspiration. His work on the plate is largely intuitive, encouraging the free-play of the imagination and utilizing unforeseen consequences and even accidents in the application of the sequential processes involved. He relies upon the unconscious imaginative resources of image-making, seeking an equilibrium between spontaneity and reflective analysis.

It is above all in his mastery of the mysteries of colour that Saunier stands out today as unique among living printmakers. His colour sensibility is unrivalled among contemporary printmakers, and his capacity to impart atmosphere as well as drama by means of colour and irrational spatial structures is truly astonishing is truly astonishing. He sets colour gradations in opposition to each other to create forms of counterpoint that may complement or stand in opposition to the counterpoint of geometric shapes. By such means new colour spaces and beautiful spatial progressions and regressions can be created. The brilliant white of the paper is often used to constitute a source of light within the image itself, which may glow as brilliantly as the fluorescent colours Saunier so often uses in intaglio. The artist plays not only with colours in its images, but with light itself.

As one surveys Saunier’s oeuvre of the last thirty years one realizes that he can orchestrate space, line and colour in abstract form with the imagination and subtlety of a great composer. The rage of colour harmonies and dissonances is extraordinary, from the tranquil tones of sogt, gentle blues, greys and pinks to the dazzling dramatic effects of fiery red-orange set against green and yellow like a fanfare of trumpets. As Hayter said of him, he “not only creates a space of the imagination beyond our normal experience, but involves us in another dimension of the consciousness of colour in itself – making us aware of the unsuspected amplitude of one of the most joyful aspects of life”.

St John’s College, Oxford