The Early Prints of Marcus Rees Roberts

Marcus Rees Roberts, The Dour Life I (1980), etching and aquatint, image 19.5 x 15.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London and Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

Marcus Rees Roberts, The Dour Life I (1980), etching and aquatint, image 19.5 x 15.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London and Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

Though he remains little known in the United States, Marcus Rees Roberts has for four decades been one of the most challenging and rewarding British artists working in print.1 The recent etchings for which he is best known, like By the Black Window (2014), are characterized by ambiguity and poetic compression, their sources and allusions veiled in dense and brooding ink. In his extended intaglio series of the 1970s and ’80s, however, Rees Roberts unleashed a battery of textual and visual references—diagrams appropriated from Lacan, comic strips, photographs, beautifully rendered caricatures, texts both satiric and deeply felt—in an ambitious sequence of visual arguments about art’s place in the world.

Rees Roberts, who collects prints by William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and Goya, became interested in satire while at the Slade, partly in response to the Marxist and Structuralist theory he encountered there. He identified with the aspirations of 18th-century satirists to devise an art that remained engaged with the world and politically relevant despite its inherent artifice and self-referential nature. Goya’s Caprichos (1799) vividly conveys the unreality at the heart of metaphor; and the captions to the plates in his Los Desatros de la Guerra (Disasters of War, ca. 1810–13) demonstrate the insufficiency of language in the face of horror. One can view Goya’s approach as anticipating Bertholt Brecht’s conviction that critical art must be aware of the limitations imposed by its own artifice.

Rees Roberts borrows from Goya in several of his early prints. The 14 etchings blandly titled Mrs White (1976) feature grotesque figures inhabiting a domestic hell and surreal plucked chickens that echo the human-headed fowl in Capricho 20, Ya van desplumados (There they go plucked). The figure of Mrs. White herself suggests Brecht’s Mother Courage if she had been drawn by Goya and were exercising a Sweeney Todd reign of terror in her boarding house. The set includes hand-drawn etchings of great technical control as well as photo-etchings and passages of prose that mimic popular novels. (“After that Hazel met Rodney regularly. She found him good fun to be with. He brought something into her life …”)

Of the many heroes and villains that populate Rees Roberts’s work of this period, Brecht is perhaps the most central and persistent. The 17-etching series Rees Roberts produced the year after Mrs White is titled “the 3p Novel”in obvious homage to Brecht’s most famous work, and the playwright is depicted in the first print of the set. In other prints, fragments of text articulate an imaginary dialogue between Brecht and the artist’s alter-ego, “Rhys.” Through Brecht, Rees Roberts adopted strategies of literary modernism: the juxtaposition of poetic fragments, multiple voices and styles; the use of quotation as disruption and appropriation; the blurring of the relationship between interpretation, translation and illustration; and the exposure of the polysemous layers and intertextual associations that constitute the apparently “realist” text. Rees Roberts, who first studied English at Cambridge, then film theory at the Slade before settling into printmaking, employs filmic techniques such as montage, cropping, framing, jump cuts, tracking shot sequences and close-ups. Just as Brecht promoted the disruption of traditional dramatic forms through the use of “alienation effects,” Reese Roberts here “makes strange” the procedures of representational art.2

Marcus Rees Roberts, Mrs. White VIII (1976), etching and aquatint, image 10 x 7.4 cm. Edition of 30. Printed by the artist, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

Marcus Rees Roberts, Mrs. White VIII (1976), etching and aquatint, image 10 x 7.4 cm. Edition of 30. Printed by the artist, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

The 3p Novel systematically addresses the problem posed by Brecht of what a truly dialectical artwork might look like. Statements from Brecht on the social function of art are juxtaposed with quotations concerning the nature of signification and textuality from a book by Jonathan Culler on Structuralist poetics.3 The artist installs a group of figures similar to the monstrous cast of Mrs White alongside photographs lifted from the “readers’ wives” sections of porn magazines; philosophical speculations on the nature of metaphor collide with Marxist slogans in the mouths of lovers taken from teen-romance comics. The prints suggest the artist’s preoccupation with ideology and the “transparency” of realist texts, as well as his abhorrence of a clear, illustrational relationship between image and text: “illustration closes the text; it confirms it, it endorses a certain reading” reads the caption to a picture in plate XII showing a decaying ship with the word “capitalism” written on its side.

These experiments and thematic concerns were further elaborated in A Modest Disposal (1978) and The Winter Journey (1979). The 17 etching/aquatints of the former are permeated by the “left-wing melancholy” that Walter Benjamin ascribed, in a review of Erich Kästner, to the decline of poetry from political struggle into aesthetic effect—“from a means of production into an article of consumption.” (Benjamin’s article, which Rees Roberts found in the British film journal Screen, is cited in a second state of the set’s title page.)4

In the 18 prints of The Winter Journey, Rees Roberts addressed the inevitable failure of art to capture reality—a theme that continues to preoccupy him (since 2005 he has been making short films under this same title). His main reference points in this work are Balzac’s Sarrasine (1830) and Roland Barthes’ semiotic analysis of Sarrasine in S/Z (1970).

Balzac’s story concerns an enigmatic old man at a party attended by the narrator; this man is also the model for a picture of Adonis. The narrator’s mistress demands an explanation of these mysteries, and is told the story of the young sculptor Sarrasine, his journey to Rome and his passion for a beautiful opera singer—La Zambinella—he meets there, the statue he makes of her, the revelation that La Zambinella is, in fact, a castrato and, finally, Sarrasine’s murder by the servants of Cardinal Cicognara, the singer’s protector. The old man, the model for Adonis, and La Zambinella turn out to be the same person. In Barthes’ analysis, Sarrasine, a symbolic descendant of Pygmalion, cannot see the truth about La Zambinella because he is so committed to artistic notions of beauty: “thus realism … consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real.”5 Balzac’s story, according to Barthes, consists of a multiplicity of voices and the superimposition of several codes. Lines of narrative are interrupted, braided and folded in on themselves to delay the denouement. To impose a unified meaning would be “to cut the braid, to sketch the castrating gesture.”6

Marcus Rees Roberts, The 3p Novel XII (1977), etching and aquatint, image 15.5 x 21 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

Marcus Rees Roberts, The 3p Novel XII (1977), etching and aquatint, image 15.5 x 21 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

The title page of The Winter Journey juxtaposes a quotation from Barthes on the theme of castration in Sarrasine with a photograph of a tree in winter that appears to be fixed to the page with a paper clip. Perhaps the tree represents part of the ghostly garden viewed by Balzac’s narrator as “a gigantic representation of the Dance of Death.”7 Or perhaps it refers to “Der Lindenbaum,” from Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (1827), whose title Rees Roberts appropriated.

In the fifth print in the series, Balzac’s account of the climactic moment of revelation is photo-etched onto the plate above a set of brushstrokes framing an empty space, below which is a quotation from Sigmund Freud on the subject of castration anxiety. Brecht reappears in a photo-etched, typewritten text in plate XVI:

Rhys felt he must go over his text again, correcting it, altering it: it still wasn’t quite right. It just wasn’t quite getting near the that truth he felt deep inside him. ‘Brecht, old friend,’ he murmured as he worked, ‘I’ve let you down.’

These densely orchestrated themes reached a crescendo in 1980 with the 18 etchings of The Dour (and Twopenny) Life of Thersites, a title that summons both Brecht and Homer, only to immediately dismiss them. This redaction undermines the potential relationship between the title and the carefully executed line drawing above, which shows a bald, hunchbacked man (Thersites? La Zambinella in old age? Mr. Punch?) seated against a tiled wall hung with a glove, a condom, a set of false teeth and a pair of scissors. In the Iliad, Thersites was an ugly foot soldier rebuked by Odysseus for criticizing Agamemnon’s decision to wage war against the Trojans. According to Hegel, “the undying worm that gnaws him is the tormenting consideration that his excellent views and vituperations remain absolutely without result in the world.”8 In this context, Thersites’ frustrations can be seen as reflecting those of the political artist whose work is restricted to impotent references to other texts and images.

Marcus Rees Roberts, The Winter Journey (title sheet) (1979), etching and aquatint, image 23.5 x 19.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

Marcus Rees Roberts, The Winter Journey (title sheet) (1979), etching and aquatint, image 23.5 x 19.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

In these prints, fragments of seemingly unrelated narratives in different styles abut and overlap: a train journey through a devastated landscape, a melancholy cabaret inhabited by caricatures reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera, a man visiting a prostitute in a dingy room, and teen-romance cartoon figures whose speech bubbles spout philosophy (“But Wendy it’s not possible for the artist to determine the retrieval of a certain proposition in the way the author of a sentence can”). Alongside these narrative shards, metatextual commentaries are offered in photo-etched type and handwritten remarks (“…for he was fashionable enough to believe that pictures could be read…”), and compete for space with crude scribbles, crossings out and haphazard splashes of acid that offer evidence of the working process. The density and savagery of the erasures and storms of aquatint intensify through the set so that the final print appears to be an abstract composition of black and gray in which all identifiable form has been obliterated.

Two prints from the series reproduce a page from an English translation of Jacques Lacan’s L’Instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient.9 In plate III, Lacan’s characteristic algorithms or “mathemes” symbolize the play of substitutions that creates endless “signifying chains” within language and their relation to the Freudian unconscious:

It is on the basis of the co-presence in the signified not only of the elements of the horizontal signifying chain but also of its vertical dependencies, that I have demonstrated the effects, distributed in accordance with two fundamental structures, in metonymy and metaphor.10

Although Lacan’s influence is satirized in the speech-bubble conversations of The Winter Journey, the selection of this particular page in The Dour Life is apposite: the philosopher’s attempt to condense the relationship between language and consciousness into an iconic formula must have appealed to an artist concerned with how images signify. Further, the coexistence of “horizontal” and “vertical” vectors of meaning in this formula fits neatly the “horizontal” relationship of the prints across the series as individual impressions running in sequence, and the deeper “vertical” relationships that exist within the set as a result of Rees Roberts’s reuse of the plates. The 18 prints of The Dour Life employ only eight plates: seven plates appear in two states, and the eighth provided the title page and three further states (I, VII and XIV). As a result, within the sequence each individual print can be perceived as a distinct part of a signifying chain (the metonymic horizontal axis) that is also related structurally to other prints in the series as different states of the same plate (the vertical metaphorical axis). It is an effect that persists in such films by Rees Roberts as Ash to Dark Water (2005–13), where ghostly figures emerge from within the depths of the screen while the camera scans from left to right over a closely woven tapestry of superimposed texts.

Left: Marcus Rees Roberts, The Dour Life (title sheet) (1980), etching and aquatint, image 19.5 x 15.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London and Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London. Right: Marcus Rees Roberts, The Dour Life III (1980), etching and aquatint, image 19.5 x 15.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London and Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

Left: Marcus Rees Roberts, The Dour Life (title sheet) (1980), etching and aquatint, image 19.5 x 15.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London and Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London. Right: Marcus Rees Roberts, The Dour Life III (1980), etching and aquatint, image 19.5 x 15.5 cm. Edition of 6. Printed by the artist, London and Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary, London.

In what might be termed the second state of the title page, The Dour Life I, the line drawing of the hunchbacked figure has been aquatinted so that he or she now sports a polka-dot dress and a clownish red nose; a speech bubble observes, “it’s the incessant babbling of fools & idiots.” The artist further complicates the image with crude outlining of the figure and the frame, scattered foul bite and scratchy drypoint sketches of three little dogs running out of the picture. A partly typed, partly handwritten text is superimposed over the title, a scrappy reference to the artist’s playful appropriation of Barthes’s S/Z in The Winter Journey; it reads: “‘Everything’, he remembered reading, ‘in this text can be recuperated.’” Along the lower edge of the plate, a diagonal wedge of comic strip intrudes, overlaid with tonal washes and scribbles.

In the third state, The Dour Life VII, the plate prints black apart from a small caricature at the lower left: a nude woman lies on a bed, her head concealed by a flurry of scribbles, while a man dresses before a mirror from which a pig-like face looks back at him; a desolate cityscape can be glimpsed through a window. (Is this a lovers’ tryst, a commercial transaction or a crime?) In one peculiar change, the set of false teeth originally hanging in the upper-right corner now sits in a glass on the table at lower left.

In the fourth and final state of the plate, The Dour Life XIV, the line drawing of the bedroom scene has been aquatinted to a penumbral darkness through which new polka dots on the bedding can be seen next to the woman’s legs. What appears to be the outline of a head emerges at the lower right. Plate X offers an ironic comment on the series’ encroaching darkness when a grotesque cabaret singer invokes the morning star in a speech bubble: “Sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis” (Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death). The phrase, from Psalms 106:10, is also cited in Hans Holbein’s famous Dance of Death woodcuts from 1538.

A similar creeping darkness accompanies Don Juan as he descends into hell in Rees Roberts’s four-part series of 37 etchings, The Tiredness (1981–83). Part 1, begun in Edinburgh at the time of the arrest of the “Yorkshire Ripper,” juxtaposes grainy tabloid photographs of the killer’s victims with extracts from Rees Roberts’s own “rather over-written version of Don Juan.”11 The grotesque cabaret characters from The Dour Life and the porcine man visiting a prostitute are reprised here, alongside comic strips, photographic film and medical illustrations of internal organs, notably the heart. Together these images suggest the banality and misogyny that characterize both the famous serial lover and the famous serial killer. In Parts II, III and IV, the artist replaces his own texts with passages from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837) and alters the images on each print so that they signify both horizontally and vertically in a similar manner to those in The Dour Life. Here, however, he achieved this effect with the aid of a photocopier: “I took photocopies of the finished etchings and continued to photocopy the photocopies until the image began to break up; then I photo-etched that image onto a new plate and reworked it from there.”12 The Tiredness was conceived as an open edition, meant to be accessible in price and in its references, rather in the manner of the popular prints of the past. Its 6 x 4–inch format is close to that of mass-market paperbacks.

Marcus Rees Roberts, By the Black Window I (2014), etching and aquatint, image 39.6 x 55.9 cm. Edition of 15. Printed by the artist, London. Published by Pratt Contemporary, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary.

Marcus Rees Roberts, By the Black Window I (2014), etching and aquatint, image 39.6 x 55.9 cm. Edition of 15. Printed by the artist, London. Published by Pratt Contemporary, London. Image courtesy of Pratt Contemporary.

The final set I will discuss here, The Heart (1985), represents an important transitional work for Rees Roberts. In it, photo-etchings of Samuel Beckett’s short text Lessness (1970) overlap with images both freshly drawn and found (elements collected, and sometimes altered, from newspapers, then photo-etched onto the plate where they were further altered). These ten etchings still employ the caricature style of Mrs White, but we can see Rees Roberts moving toward the brushed expressionism of his later career. Beckett’s practice of composing his text through choice and chance, drawing from a hat small pieces of paper on which enigmatic phrases had been written, provided Rees Roberts with a way out of the impasse of failing to produce the genuinely dialectical art proposed by Brecht. Though he does not follow Beckett’s regular repetition of predetermined phrases in mathematical sequences, Rees Roberts’s work responds, obliquely rather than literally, to its resulting musical rhythms and vivid poetic imagery.13

Beckett’s short, late texts have been described as “slides or still photographs in a rapidly moving series” where “images stand out not coherent sentences” and where “narration and description as they normally exist in prose” are avoided.14 This description also fits Rees Roberts’s early prints series, as they work through the artist’s attempt to theorize a Brechtian dialectical and politically engaged art, to harmonize that ideal with insights from Structuralism, and finally to locate meaning in the lyrical aleatoric structures inspired by Beckett.

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  1. Edward Winters and Ben Thomas, Marcus Rees Roberts: Winter Journey (Ightham, Kent: Pratt Contemporary Art, 2014). See also: Edward Winters, Marcus Rees Roberts: New and Recent Prints (Ightham, Kent: Pratt Contemporary Art, 2005); Jackie Newell, “Digging Deep,” in Printmaking Today (Winter 2012): 8–9; Theresa Marie Ketterer, “Marcus Rees Roberts: Echo Song I, II and III (2012),” in Art in Print 2, no. 5 (January–February 2013): 32. []
  2. Bertolt Brecht quoted in John Willett, ed., Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (London: Methuen, 1974). []
  3. Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975). []
  4. Walter Benjamin, “Left-Wing Melancholy: On Erich Kästner’s new book of poems,” Screen 15, no. 2 (1974): 28–32. []
  5. Roland Barthes, “Painting as a Model,” in S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 55. []
  6. Ibid., 160. []
  7. Barthes, 221. []
  8. Georg W. F. Hegel, trans. J. Sebree, The Philosophy of History (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 32. []
  9. Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud” in Écrits: a Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977). []
  10. Ibid., 164. The title of the lecture is perhaps more accurately translated as “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” as it is styled in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 155. []
  11. Marcus Rees Roberts, “Notes on The Tiredness 1981–83” (unpublished artist’s statement), n.p. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Samuel Beckett, Lessness (London: Calder & Boyars, 1970). []
  14. Susan Brienza and Enoch Brater, “Chance and Choice in Beckett’s Lessness,” ELH 43, no. 2 (1976): 244. []