There is nothing all that unusual about the subjects of Hercules Segers’ prints — landscapes, mostly — but you can’t say the same about his technique or his vision. Segers (1589-1633) was from the newly formed Dutch Republic, where the popularity of landscape was growing. The emphasis of his contemporaries was on extracting plainspoken beauty from familiar Dutch topography, such as damp riverine scenes or clusters of cottages. Segers’ landscapes, by contrast, are experimental, idiosyncratic, mountainous fantasias that, at their weirdest, evoke comparison to coral, ocean sponges, and toad spawn.
Despite the oddity of his prints, Segers seems to have made a reasonable business for himself; records mined from archives show him owning houses and taking wives. The reports of his prints being reduced to soap wrappers was invented by a later biographer, who perhaps could not wrap his mind around how Segers sold any art at all. Though he had no students, Segers in part earned his current standing by inspiring Rembrandt’s improvisational printmaking techniques.
Intaglio printmaking as a medium was a couple hundred years old by the time Segers took it up. It had evolved from engraving — in which lines are made by carving directly into a copper plate with a tool called a burin — to include etching, where lines are made by drawing on wax-coated plates that were then bathed in acid. Where the copper is exposed, the acid does the work of the burin. In either technique, ink is rubbed into the lines of the plate and then transferred to a piece of damp paper under the pressure of a printing press.
Within the etching process, there are any number of variables to manipulate: degree of time in the acid bath; how much ink is left on the surface of the plate before printing; color of the ink, and so on. While Rembrandt worked and reworked his plates through numerous states, he opted for manipulating only a few variables in his etching technique — the inking of the plate and the time in the acid bath, and occasionally the kind of paper he printed on.
For Segers, by contrast, all of these variables and then some were in play. He printed on linen and cotton; in colored ink on a light ground; in light, opaque ink on a dark ground. He introduced several colors into a single image through the use of multiple plates, innovated an early form of aquatint, and finished some prints with watercolor. In the current exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers, several of the works on view are counterproofs, essentially monoprints made by running freshly printed sheets through the press to transfer the image onto a clean piece of paper. Like so many aspects of Segers’ works, it is unclear whether the counterproofs were a byproduct or an end goal of his efforts.
The results of Segers’ assays are always interesting, if not always conventionally beautiful. Even in his early work, where his subjects are more ordinary, there is a sense of perversity, not with the Modernist goal to épater la bourgeoisie, but in a kind of damn-it-all, Mr. Toad behind-the-wheel sort of way, boop-booping and careering down the road for the sheer pleasure of it. There is no evidence that he cultivated a particularly unusual persona; his unique energy seems to have been all forced through the fine point of his art, which focused it into an intense beam.
Take the “Ruins of Brederode Castle” (1615-1630). Brederode Castle is a medieval structure that had been damaged by Spanish troops during the Dutch Republic’s battle for independence. Purchased by the Dutch government, it was a popular subject for artists, for its dramatic ruins as much as its nationalist overtones.
Segers’ depiction of the scene uneasily combines a manic zeal for depicting every brick with a remarkable indifference to demarcating intersecting planes or making lines plumb. While distant bricks are minutely rendered, flowers in the foreground are depicted as an even row of little black blots that look as if I, a non-artist, drew them, in seventh grade, with a felt tip pen. The branches of the bushes growing out of the ruins are adorned with specks for leaves, which, unstemmed, evoke clouds of moths.
And this is without mentioning his etching technique, which veers away from the pristine professionalism practiced by his contemporaries. Etched lines on the left side waver and blot — the result of what is called, in printmakers’ patois, “foul biting,” the effect of acid leaching through the wax resist on the plate.
The sky is blotchy: are these random smudges or an intentional intimation of typically filthy Dutch weather? Hard to tell, and it doesn’t help that at the upper left there are also light tracings of loops, as if he were trying to coax ink out of a ball point pen, and a patch of crosshatching that looks like a doodle I drew at a meeting, last week, when I was bored.
It is unimaginable that Segers could have made much of his career if he continued to pursue these errors and experiments in his prints, and his later works do reduce the number if not the force of the peculiarities. In a scene such as “Mountain Valley with Broken Pine Trees,” (1622-25) for instance, the horror vacui that gave us every brick of the ruined Brederode Castle translates into a carpet of stubbly marks, creating the image of a valley with a road winding into it. There is a walled city deep within the space that looks peaceful enough, but the entry to the image is partially barred by a fallen dead pine, which is joined by two more, blasted and leaning. The effect is post-apocalyptic. Tiny figures move about the landscape, barely formed, like larvae.
By manipulating color, Segers can relent a little on the mood of his vision. Two impressions of “Landscape with a Plateau with a River in the Distance” (1622-25) show this. One, printed in dark ink on white paper, feels in places uncomfortably clotted with spongiform lines. The other, using blue-toned paper and two plates — one inked with dark pigment, the other with a pale yellow — transforms the scene into a nighttime valley glimmering with specks of reflected moonlight.
The transformation is like that of a city view between day and night: the former a chaotic accretion of traces of human endeavor; the latter, lifted by the lighting into a state of grace. (You can compare the two, and other similar compositions, in this effortless tool on the Met website.)
In “The Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg,” (1625-30), he’s back to billions of bricks, now draped with luxurious vegetation and set in a sea of deep grass, rendered in short, calligraphic strokes. Nearly invisible within the foliage are two sheep, a dog, and a well-dressed man. Printed in light opaque ink on a dark background, it evokes the lush ornamental language and sense of pictorial flatness of engraved metal. Part of Segers’ process here and in other works involved inscribing fine lines on the plate before he etched it, some of which are still visible, looming like a gridded mist above the building.
In this print, Segers seems to be alluding to the origins of intaglio printmaking in decorative metalwork, which also deployed etching and engraving for its ornament. Yet, as the curators note, the aspirations and affinities of these prints are most of all to painting. That Segers was also an accomplished painter (several fine examples of his oils are on view) suggests that his goal was not to make mock-paintings, but rather to hybridize his graphic and painterly endeavors.
“The Mossy Tree” (1625-30) exemplifies this. A unique impression, it is printed in green ink on colored paper and hand-painted. Mossy lines drizzle from the frame of the tree, obtaining a kind of succulent mark-making uncommon in prints of this period. At the base of the tree, however, where in a painting the roots would sink into soil and the solidity of paint, the marks dissipate into an assortment of squiggles and dots, the tools of suggestion of the graphic artist.
The paintings and prints are thoughtfully installed in the Met’s dedicated rooms for works on paper. While one wishes for a magnifying glass, a helpful display case explains some of the intricacies of Segers’ technique, and a video at the entrance explains the artist’s significance. Do not miss this. It sets Segers’ prints in motion in the manner of Terry Gilliam’s cut-out animations for Monty Python, with a voiceover by that guy in a grad seminar who is capable of making even banal utterances sound like they are rolled in gold leaf. (He turns out to be John Malkovich.)
The underlying thrill of this show is the extent to which Segers’ idiosyncrasy challenges our expectations of his time of history. From our postmodern perspective, it is easy to silently root for his eccentric explorations. After all, even Rembrandt, who acquired one of Segers’ plates, succumbed to the urge to “fix” it, adjusting the scale of two figures in it to his liking and subduing some of the more coral-like texture in the trees.
Yet as much as Segers’ work confirms our understanding of the norm, it opens up the possibility of deviance from — even defiance of — the norm, not only in Segers, but those who collected him. Historical accounts by nature have to normalize in order fill in gaps, but Segers reminds us that the most simple explanation is not always the right one.
The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 21.