Aldo Crommelynck: Master and Midwife

Exhibition Review

  • "From Picasso to Jasper Johns, the Atelier of Aldo Crommelynck"

  • Bibliothèque nationale de France François-Mitterrand, Galerie François Ier, Paris
  • 08 Apr 2014 - 13 Jul 2014
Portrait of Aldo Crommelynck (2007). BnF, départment des Estampes et de la photographie. ©David Paul Carr / BnF.

Portrait of Aldo Crommelynck (2007). BnF, départment des Estampes et de la photographie. ©David Paul Carr / BnF.

This stunning exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France pays homage to the master printer Aldo Crommelynck (1931–2008), a private, laconic figure justly celebrated for his technical virtuosity. Although best known for his long-lasting collaboration with Pablo Picasso, Crommelynck was a transgenerational figure who worked with younger artists, many British and American, first in Paris and later in New York.

Marie-Cécile Miessner, honorary curator of the library’s prints and drawings department, along with curators Céline Chicha-Castex and Cécile Pocheau-Lesteven, assembled 136 thematically and aesthetically diverse works, produced by 30 different artists. The works were selected from the library’s rich holdings, which include some 200 prints gifted by Crommelynck’s stepdaughter Corinne Buchet-Crommelynck in 2010 and 126 works given in 2007 by Jim Dine (a donation celebrated by that year’s exhibition “Aldo et moi”).1).

Born in Monaco, the son of Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck, Aldo was apprenticed at age 17 to the Parisian printer Roger Lacourière, and quickly proved to be a skilled craftsman. He was soon assisting such artists as Matisse, Leger, André Masson and Georges Rouault. When Picasso saw the young man’s accomplished etching of his 1952 gouache Le crâne de chevre sur la table (Goat skull on a table)—having been disappointed by Lacourière’s own version—Crommelynck became his preferred printmaker.2

Jim Dine, Blue detail from the Crommelynck gate (1982), etching, aquatint and power tools, diptych, 85.5 x 58.6 cm / 85.3 x 58.6 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Jim Dine / ADAGP, 2014.

Jim Dine, Blue detail from the Crommelynck gate (1982), etching, aquatint and power tools, diptych, 85.5 x 58.6 cm / 85.3 x 58.6 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Jim Dine / ADAGP, 2014.

When Crommelynck left Lacourière in 1955 to set up his own studio, Picasso followed. In 1961, assisted by his younger brother Piero, Crommelynck became Picasso’s sole printer. Over the next ten years they produced around 750 images, including the renowned Suite 347 in 1968 and Suite 156 a few years later. They toiled night and day, eventuallyopening a second atelier in Mougins near the artist’s home in Cannes to keep up with Picasso’s vigorous output.

After Picasso’s death in 1973, Crommelynck returned to Paris. Working out of a townhouse on the rue de Grenelle, he began collaborating with artists of his own generation. Foreigners such as Richard Hamilton, David Hockney and Jim Dine made the pilgrimage to Paris to work with him, as did Jasper Johns, Donald Sultan and Peter Blake.

The exhibition documenting this rich history is organized along loosely thematic and at times intuitive lines. It opens, aptly, with Dine’s graceful Blue Detail from the Crommelynck Gate (1982), which depicts the ornate, wrought-iron entrance to the atelier—a gateway to an enchanted world.

“Being in Paris awakened in me the collective memory of French culture and I wanted to be part of it and to become part of the light. After all, I was experiencing the same light that Pisarro had seen,” Dine wrote in Aldo et moi.3 The mythos of Paris, along with the mystique of working with Picasso’s printer, are evoked in the first gallery: Dine’s exuberant Paris Smiles in Darkness (1976) depicting the Eiffel Tower in soft ground, sugar-lift and drypoint; R.B. Kitaj’s sensual soft-ground etching Place de la Concorde (1982); and Les Deux Magots (1985), Red Grooms’ zany gathering of Paris’ artistic and intellectual elite, from Balthus and Giacometti to Picasso, Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Jennifer Bartlett, Bridge, Boot, Dog (1997), color etching, triptych, each plate 60.4 x 60.5 cm. Published by Pace Prints, New York. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Jennifer Bartlett.

Jennifer Bartlett, Bridge, Boot, Dog (1997), color etching, triptych, each plate 60.4 x 60.5 cm. Published by Pace Prints, New York. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Jennifer Bartlett.

The city’s allure for Anglophone writers is honored with Blake’s series of etchings about James Joyce in Paris, which hangs alongside Leopold Bloom (1983) and Transmogrifications of Bloom (1984), Richard Hamilton’s magnificent Joycean aquatints (see Art in Print, Nov–Dec 2013)—Crommelynck specialized in the technique, attaining incomparably rich, even gray tones—as well as Jasper Johns’ etchings for Samuel Beckett’s Foirades/Fizzles (1976).

In the center of the large gallery space, an intimate enclosure with bright red walls seems to symbolize the heart of the exhibition. Focusing on Picasso, it includes Musketeer Sitting Down With a Young Boy and Recalling His Life (1968), the joyous Fumeur à la cigarette verte, and Ecco Homo after Rembrandt, both from 1970. The gallery also incorporates works by Hamilton and Hockney from the “Homage to Picasso” portfolio. (Hamilton only agreed to participate in the portfolio on the condition he could collaborate with the master’s etcher.) His superb Picasso’s Meninas (1973) uses eight different processes, including aquatint, soft- and hard-ground etching, open bite, sugar-lift and drypoint to play with Picasso’s own interpretations of Velasquez’s masterpiece. In the witty Artist and Model (1973), a nude Hockney and an elderly Picasso in striped sailor’s garb sit facing one another at a table; the figures are sketched in different etching techniques, with Picasso rendered through the soft ground perfected chez Crommelynck.

Adorned with a large photograph of the Crommelynck atelier, another gallery becomes a studio of sorts, filled with technical tours de force, such as the famous etching of Picasso’s goat skull from his early days at Lacourière, or Felicity Sleeping with Parrot, Hockney’s color etching of his mother, for which the printer pioneered a single-plate system for multicolored etchings. (Surprisingly for a show on intaglio, the galleries glow with vibrant color.)

Terry Winters, Album (1988), etching and aquatint, 52 x 40.3 cm. From a portfolio of nine etchings published by Editions Ilene Kurtz, New York. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Terry Winters.

Terry Winters, Album (1988), etching and aquatint, 52 x 40.3 cm. From a portfolio of nine etchings published by Editions Ilene Kurtz, New York. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Terry Winters.

While Crommelynck strove for perfection, he allowed and encouraged experimentation. Dine frequently subverted the printer’s meticulousness (the catalogue includes the remembrances of former assistants about Crommelynck’s perfectionism and his insistence on keeping the atelier immaculate. René Tazé noted, “He could not bear even the tiniest flaw on a proof.”4) A notoriously impulsive and unorthodox printmaker, Dine often reworks plates, incorporating accidents and employing unconventional instruments such as power tools (see Art in Print, Jul-Aug 2013).The Channel and 12 rue Jacob (1985) reflect the incredible pas de deux that must have taken place. The result is beautifully controlled chaos. Dine recycled the first image, a skull, by sanding down the plate and removing 15 centimeters from the bottom to transform it into a portrait of his then-wife Nancy, the pentimento leaving a halo around her face.

Other portraits include an elegant wall of images by Alex Katz from his Give Me Tomorrow portfolio (1984), combining a velvety soft-ground line with subtle aquatint shadows, and a masterful self-portrait by Chuck Close from 1988, which employs a grid of 2,106 points, numbered to correspond to the range of gray tones. The tall, gaunt printer is himself the subject of several portraits, including those by Grooms and Avigdor Arikha, an indication of the affection artists bore him.

In 1986, after falling out with his brother, Crommelynck was encouraged by Dine to open a second printshop in New York to publish prints with American artists in partnership with Pace Prints. He left his legacy there, too, training several American printers, including Julia D’Amario and Bill Hall, who remain prominent today. The exhibition concludes with moments of grace from several of these American artists: Sultan’s Black Freesias (1987), a suite of six small, delicate silhouettes of flower stems in matte, deep-black ink on stark white; Claes Oldenburg’s lyrical aquatint of a giant slice of strawberry cheesecake; Ed Ruscha’s drinking glasses floating on a lush background.

The variety, luminosity and sumptuousness of these works demonstrate the ability of Crommelynck, patient yet demanding, to get the very best from each of his artists. He saw himself as an extension of the artist’s hand—a printing tool—and believed his own efforts should remain invisible. Nonetheless some sort of magic emanates from these works. They display a surprising immediacy, as if freshly pulled off the press. As Dine put it, “he was a great midwife.”5


The exhibition is accompanied by the catalogue De Picasso à Jasper Johns. L’Atelier d’Aldo Crommelynck, under the direction of Céline Chicha-Castex, Marie-Cécile Miessner and 
Cécile Pocheau Lesteven. Additional texts by Emmanuelle Bervillé-Ayhnard, Christine Ljubanovic and Rachel Stella. Published by Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) / Musée Soulages Rodez, Paris, 2014. 128 pages, 80 illustrations, €32.

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  1. Dine donated a complete set of the prints produced during their 20-year-long collaboration to the library; the resulting exhibition, “Jim Dine: Aldo et moi, Estampes gravées et imprimées avec Aldo Crommelynck,” was held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France Richelieu from 24 April – 17 June 2007. []
  2. Whereas Lacourière had let the paper reproduce the white in Picasso’s gouache, Crommelynck used white ink, an innovation that changed the course of his life. []
  3. In Jim Dine: Aldo et moi. Estampes gravées et imprimées avec Aldo Crommelynck (Coédition Bibliothèque nationale de France / Steidl, Paris, 2007), 2. []
  4. Quoted in Rachel Stella, “Impressions Durable,” in De Picasso à Jasper Johns, L’atelier d’Aldo Crommelynck (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2014), 44. []
  5. Jim Dine: Aldo et moi, 2. []