Engraving for Herself and Others: Cécile Reims

Cécile Reims, plate from Les Métamorphoses (1957–8), suite of 15 engravings, 30.8 x 20.7 cm each. Edition of 25. Text by Ovide. Printed by André Moret, Paris. Typography by Étienne Baudelot, Paris. Published by Cécile Reims, Lacoux, France (1959). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

I, the engraving, I am engraved, scratched, scraped, nielloed;

I am a wound like a furrow in the soil and a gouge in the flesh . . .1

In this striking quotation, the French writer and art critic Gilbert Lascault anthropomorphized engraving into a prosopopoeia. He is poeticizing the thoughts of Cécile Reims (b. 1927), France’s most accomplished living engraver. For 60 years Reims has investigated the technical puritanism of burin and copper; with some 1,435 prints behind her, she calls engraving the “Ariadne’s thread” of her life.2 She exemplifies excellence achieved through limitation.

Her studio, tucked into a downstairs corner of her home in La Châtre, a small town in the geographical center of France, comprises a desk, a lamp, a mirror and a drawer filled with engraving tools. She does not have a press; she “proofs” her engravings through touch with her fingertips. The house feels hermitic; expressive of a life lived through artistic ascesis, in perfect symbiosis with her husband, the artist and writer Fred Deux, until his death last September. His little studio was at the top of the house.

Reims began her formal artistic studies in 1945 at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Montparnasse, looking to make art in the mess of a newly liberated city. A family friend, Ignaz Rubenstein (brother of the great pianist, Arthur), spotted an engraver’s sensibility in her line drawings and presented her to the burin master, Joseph Hecht (1891–1951).3 Reims became Hecht’s protégé, and underwent a taxing apprenticeship. Hecht’s approach was Spartan—plate flat on the table, using the right hand to incise and the left to spin the plate; no superfluous recutting; any burr should be scraped out to attain an immaculate line (though Reims claims the quality of the copper was far better at the time, producing little burr). Reims embraced the rigor of both master and metier, shucking off more unpredictable processes such as hard grounds or acids, which might distract from a controllable aesthetic. She found her favorite tool in the lozenge burin (and only in the finest sizes) that makes a V-shaped cut deeper than it is wide. She chose a warm black, hued with red, for her ink and sent her plates to Ateliers Moret for printing, opening a conversation that would continue for life.

Cécile Reims, plate from Cosmogonies (1959), suite of 10 engravings, this plate 14 x 21.7 cm. Text by Claude Louis-Combet. Edition of 30. Printed by Les Ateliers Moret, Paris. Typography by Jean-Jacques Sergent, Cléry-Saint-André, France. Published by O.G.C- Michèle Broutta, Paris (2002). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

Reims’ earliest engravings (ca. 1945–1951) show Hecht’s influence: a plucked chicken made after an ink drawing, the Canal d’Ourq and the River Seine. She turned from urban emptiness to workers harvesting lavender in the fields and then to more stylized works, setting up a model for working in series often accompanied by text: Les Saltimbanques (1949), Les Géorgiques (1949–50), La Création du Monde (1949), Les Psaumes (1950) and Visages d’Espagne (1951). The images she produced in her early twenties demonstrate a firm principle of order—detail is deliberately renounced. She makes plate tone conjure solid space that sits within and around forms drawn in unshadowed line, arranging things without any pretense of the illusion of life. Such assurance suggests that a preconceived, resolved idea arrived on the plate via a perfectly coordinated hand. There are few drawings and no sketchbooks to note. There is no sense of the tool (or the concentrated exertion of the artist) behind it.

Today Reims is dismissive of these formative works and points to successive suites, Les Métamorphoses, Bestiare de la mort and Cosmogonies (1957–1958 and 1959), as more significant, crediting Ovide with having lured her away from straight observation to the transfigured reality of an interior world. In the Les Métamorphoses, we see Reims moving into detail, contrasting passages of worked tone against the line. In one image (Laz 133.10)4 a pair of smooth human thighs is folded beneath the plumage of a majestic owl, as if tucked under a poncho. The owl’s wealth of feathers is constructed of tiny chevron-shaped cuts repeated to the point of mise en abyme; at points Reims breaks these chevrons to nick the copper, evoking fluffy down. Sleek, coiled lines form sensuous sockets around the bird’s eyes. Reims has derided her imagination as “distressingly precious,”5 but Ovid teased a broader range of texture from her burin, giving occasion for velvety fur, amphibious skin, bone and sinew.

For the Cosmogonies suite, Reims turned to old-fashioned scientific book illustration to compose ten compositions marked by passages of nebulous stippling, creating images, for the first time “ex-nihilo.”6 Some of the images suggest intergalactic landscapes, others microscopic views of the natural world tilted up on a flat plane. She was now deeply en-gaged in scrupulous detail—reading the plethora of miniscule cuts in these works challenges the eye. I asked Reims what happened if her cutting hand erred and she slipped out of a furrow; she responded that mistakes just didn’t happen.

Cécile Reims after Hans Bellmer, Autoportrait (1970), engraving and drypoint, 27.7 x 21.9 cm. Edition of 120. After a 1955 graphite drawing by Bellmer. Published by Propyläen, Berlin (1972). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

Reims met Deux in 1951 at La Hune bookstore in Paris. An autodidact, Deux was prodigiously creative, drawing and writing for hours daily. Someone had to put food on the table, so despite early critical acclaim, Reims put away her burin after Cosmogonies and began to weave fine textiles on a loom constructed by Deux. (The happiest years of her childhood had been spent playing among bolts of crêpe de Chine and velvet in her grandfather’s textile shop in Kibarty, a Lithuanian village falling off the edge of East Prussia.) The change of profession also came from a moral standpoint: questioning the purpose of art in postwar Europe, Reims was not convinced. The rhythmic mechanics of the loom anchored her days and freed her from creative responsibility—she admits that Deux’s unbound ingenuity left her feeling a little pale. Though Deux’s star was rising after the publication of his autobiographical novel, La Gana (penned under the pseudonym Jean Douassot, 1958), Reims slipped into a supportive role, selling her textiles to famous Parisian fashion houses to support what remained a lean existence.

In 1959, the couple decamped to Lacoux, a hamlet of 52 people in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, close to the Hauteville plateau where Reims had spent a year convalescing from a vicious bout of tuberculosis. Distance from the world suited their aesthetic and ascetic preoccupations. A chance meeting in 1966 with the artist and Surrealist print publisher, Georges Visat, brought her down from the mountain. (Deux had frequented André Breton’s circle, even founding his own Surrealist subgroup in Marseille.) For a new publishing venture Visat needed an engraver to transcribe the drawings of the artist standing next to him—the burin he could not master in his back pocket—the morbidly erotic Hans Bellmer (1902–1975). Reims took up the dare. After sending off her first plate, a village farmer delivered Bellmer’s telegrammed response from Lacoux’s only phone box: “Come.”7

Cécile Reims after Hans Bellmer, Analogies ou Le Canapé (1968–9), engraving and drypoint, 26.2 x 19.8 cm. Text by Hans Bellmer. Edition of 160. Engraved after Bellmer’s La Petite Fille sur canapé noir or Viol (1960), charcoal and graphite with highlights in white gouache on Ingres rose paper, 63.3 x 47.4 cm. Printed by Les Ateliers Moret, Paris. Typography by Adolf Furst and son, Berlin. Published by Propyläen, Berlin (1971). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

Reims began a new career as an interpretative engraver. She transcribed 250 of Bellmer’s drawings, becoming “permeable like a sieve.” As with the weaving, she found the absence of creative control liberating: “I became more and more Bellmer and it was joyful. . . I was not responsible for the work.”8 A deliberate removal of the self, she explains, is essential to transcribing the work of another: “The crayon runs over the paper—I incise on metal. It’s totally different. There is a moment—and it is the most difficult—when you must disappear. If I reappear, if I question, the questioning will impede the transcription.”9 Bellmer’s art advanced her skills; his swooping lines offered a thrilling new language. When she was stumped on how to render a black, velvet couch encasing a fetishized female for the print Analogies ou Le Canapé (1968–69, Laz 188), Bellmer counseled the introduction of drypoint and roulette, mixing techniques that would have horrified Hecht. Reims blossomed in a fulfilling but corralled role. Bellmer made a fortune; Reims, his hidden third hand, was paid “like a plumber.” Bellmer signed the prints with his name alone.10

Though the burin works as a surface leveler of sorts, the jump from Reims’ serene personal imagery to the controlled turmoil of Bellmer’s onanistic, carnal forms is a sharp one. But his fixation on orifices and freakish explicit imagery seems to have passed Reims by. Her obsession was the discipline, the cutting: the line. In an untitled engraving from 1974–75 after Bellmer’s study for Histoire de l’oeil, de Georges Bataille (1946, Laz 475), the lower half of a female body is seen from behind with legs and buttocks mirrored and stacked in a pile, dressed only in lace-up “Victoriana” ankle boots. In the center of the image, torquing the composition, a hand gropes towards an anus. Female genitalia are the familiar subject of this complex, lubricious composition, an exemplification of aestheticized sexual objectification that remains disquieting. Deep in her furrow, Reims, meticulously rebuilding Bellmer’s mesmeric lines, would absorb the content of such an image only upon completing the plate. Getting “trapped” in the image risked ruining the print. Though their working together was profoundly intimate, Bellmer remained distant too; a self-portrait he dedicated to her shows his deep appreciation of her work, but nothing more.

Other artists approached Reims. She engraved hundreds of kitschy felines and Bambi-eyed women for the Argentinian-born Surrealist painter, Leonor Fini (1908–1996), but this was bread-and-butter work, “holidays” that offered Reims nothing creatively. She transcribed after Salvador Dali (1904–1989), taking on the famous painting My Wife, Nude, Contemplating her own Flesh becoming Stairs, Three Vertebrae of a Column, Sky and Architecture (1945) (engraving 1987, Laz 991), of which she is proud, but she found herself unable to bear his buffoonery and dropped him from her roster. Instead, she began a deeply productive collaboration with her husband.

Cécile Reims after Hans Bellmer, Untitled from the Inédits suite (1974–5) engraving and drypoint from the suite of 30 prints, 16.8 x 10.4 cm. Edition of 15. After Bellmer’s study for Histoire de l’oeil by Georges Bataille (1946), graphite. Printed by Atelier de la Chalcographie du Musée du Louvre, Paris. Published by Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris (2006). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

A poor, cultureless childhood spent in a damp family basement in Boulogne-Billancourt had given Deux little formal education but much artistic liberty—a tabula rasa on which to create.11 His drawings are filled with thickets, rhizomes, umbilical cords and phantasmagorical, hydrocephalic forms interred in geometric lattices or below a horizon line. He floods the picture plane; there are intimations of Outsider art. His haunting drawings share the interpenetrative complexity of Bellmer’s. To render Les Rêves remontent from 1994–95 (Laz 1121.7), Reims had to push burin and drypoint to their full range, tempering copper burr with delicate scraping and burnishing to match Deux’s softer graphite marks. She moved in incremental shifts from a rich black penumbra that describes the right-hand side of a profiled central figure, through mid-tone cellular structures, to a clean, white highlight on an arm. She pulls sfumato effects from the hardness of the copper, finding freedom rather than drowning in Deux’s fecundity.

Working with Bellmer was difficult. Deux was warm and his subject matter affected Reims deeply. She worked on over 400 of his drawings between 1970 and 2007, with free choice of work and scale. Deux credited her, signing all his engravings with the monogram “cf. Deux” (cecile fred. Deux—a partnership in art as in life) from 1983 onward.

A note on the history of interpretative engraving is needed to understand Reims’ significance. In the 20th century, the art was largely disregarded as skilled reproduction. “You are an artisan in my service,” Bellmer reminded Reims.12 For the artisans of France’s ancien régime, however, the skill of transposing colored oil paint into black line was considered a stringent test of entry into the Académie, “where sat 80 graveurs du roi.” Interpretative engravers were well paid, valued and named on the plate alongside the originator. Marcantonio Raimondi’s transcriptions after Raphael, Pieter van der Heyden’s after Pieter Brueghel, and Jacques Villon’s after modern masters including Braque, Matisse and Manet remain pertinent reference points. But the perception of such creative collaborations was abraded by the modernist emphasis on “originality” and individualist art making. As Laure Beaumont-Maillet (Emerita director of the department of prints and photographs at the Bibliothèque nationale) puts it, “Engraving as a job had to be forgotten. To glorify the creative artist, we considered it necessary to abase the craftsman-engraver . . . until his name was excluded from the plate that he made.”13

Cécile Reims after Fred Deux, Les Rêves remontent from the group of works La Vie antérieure (1994–5), engraving and drypoint, 23.6 x 18 cm. Edition of 109 (69 on laid Japan paper on Rives vellum, 20 on Rives vellum and 20 on Arches vellum). Typography by Pierre Chave. Printed by Les Ateliers Moret, Paris. Published by Pierre Chave, Vence, France (1995). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

Interpreting for others, however, does raise problems for an originator. Reims talks animatedly of the challenges and pleasures that Bellmer’s and Deux’s work brought her, of the freedom she found in constraint and of her incongruous sense of “being” more intensely when working, furtively, through others. She discovered a tacit power in concealment. She could engrave anything, taking on the celebrated Master E.S’s Fantastic Alphabet (ca. 1465) for pleasure in 1985–1990 (Laz 908–931), but she struggled to relocate herself. The state of being oneself can wane when set aside. What if interpretation had arrested her personal artistic development?14

An image of a humble caterpillar, found in Pierre Lyonnet’s Traité anatomique de la chenille qui ronge le bois de saule from 1760, became emblematic: “I could come back by engraving this caterpillar.”15 In 1977 she produced a series of eight delicate “portraits” of the dissected insect, erect and totemic, with decorative passages that fall somewhere between biology and weaving. They feel like a statement of intent, a new confidence.

“Deforming” and “turning around” old book illustrations, seeking to transfigure the found, now became a staple way of working for Reims. The series Histoires Naturelles I, II, III and IV (1998) indulge her passion for the natural world. She digs down into structures to find abstraction, making the order found in nature more sinuous and curious through the rounded flow of her graver, using more tone than line, shadowing and mirroring. One image from Histoires Naturelles III (Laz 1198.5) synthesizes lessons learned from Bellmer and Deux into something particular to Reims, showing a world both above and below ground. The spidery striations that make up the tone of the sky avoid the sun and moon and seem to bleed out of vertical structures sprouting from a low baseline. One might mistake these striations for mistakes in the copper, but Reims has engraved each by hand. This tiny, precious print encapsulates Reims’ universe.

Cécile Reims, plate from Histoires naturelles III (1996–7), suite of six prints: engraving and drypoint, this plate 11 x 17.7 cm. Printed by Les Ateliers Moret, Paris. Published by O.G.C- Michèle Broutta, Paris (1998). ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

Between 1998 and 2013, Reims engraved the following bodies of work, some published in tandem with her reflective texts: Guardiens du silence (1997); L’Exil des roches (1998); L’Herbier charnel (2003); La Grande Muraille (2004); Forteresse de paille (2006); Plaies d’arbres (2009) and Calligraphies végétales (2011). She describes her evolved use of the burin and drypoint as a “travesty,” so far has she come from Hecht. Her last suite of prints, L’Élan vital (2011), is, in effect, an ending, an anthropocentric interrogation in words and imagery of what we are, of the essence that is left when all flesh turns to grass. She experimented with a more literal realism, drawing from her own photographs for the series Forteresse de paille and Plaies d’arbres, but the twelve prints of L’Élan vital cloak nature in a mantle of abstraction. As if attempting a cartography of the spirit, she brings to them a sense of surging life, cellular repetition and growth arranged within a careful order.

Reims’ need for methodical constraint is born of tragic circumstance. Her mother died of septicaemia weeks after her birth in Paris and Tsila Remz, as she was then known, spent her early years in the warmth of her mother’s Jewish family in Kibarty. When she was six, however, Judelas Remzas brought his daughter back to Paris, and the absence of her Lithuanian home hit hard. Reims, her father and aunt escaped the terror of the Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, but were separated in the confusion of war. Finding herself alone in Vichy, France, Reims joined the Jewish resistance Organisation Juive de Combat (O.J.C.), carrying messages and false papers. She was reunited with her father and aunt in Paris in 1944, but when the news came that her beloved uncle, Gustav Gumpert, had been murdered in Auschwitz and the rest of her Lithuanian family—men, women and children—had been shot in the fields outside Kibarty, she fled to Palestine under false papers through the Zionist paramilitary group Haganah.16 Reims worked at the Neve Ilan kibbutz before moving to Jerusalem’s old quarter of Mahane-Jehuda, living frugally in order to draw. She served in the fight for Israeli independence and the battle for Jerusalem at the end of 1947, but her first severe attack of tuberculosis forced her to return to France. She imagined a swift return to Jerusalem, the city she still calls home, but swiftly became disillusioned with the new state of Israel and it was not to be.

Reims explains: “I have engraved hundreds of sheets of copper. It is a metal as hard as what I carry within me. And which has taken on the added weight of my compassion for the suffering man inflicts on his fellow man.”17 The fierce discipline of the copper plate saved Reims from the threat of disorder, and enabled a psychological exploration twisted into the medium itself. She is not an experimentalist, but was able to proceed within the knowledge of these limits. For the young artist that critic Marianne Colin found “shy and a little wild” with “brilliant gifts,”18 engraving offered, to recontextualize Braque, a “rule to curb the emotion.”19 It also became a source of great joy. Picture how inscribing the tiny feathers on the owl might calm and transport. And to “disappear” through others provided a familiar clandestinity, perhaps bringing some comfort: “My presence resides precisely in its absence.”20

Cécile Reims, plate from the L’ Élan vital suite (2010–11), engraving and drypoint, 19.6 x 13.4 cm. Printed by Les Ateliers Moret, Paris. ©Musée Jenisch Vevey—Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey / clichés Barbara Piovan et Mauro Magliani.

After showing me a little of her technique, Reims, still beautiful in her 89th year, put her engraver’s tools back in the drawer, muttering the words, “funeral urn.”21 She is the first since Villon to publicize her role as an interpretative engraver. She may be the last. Her magical house, stuffed with Surrealist gifts, Deux’s sculptures, tribal artworks and Reims’ curiosities found in nature, is important to the history of Surrealism in France, and perhaps for future engravers. It is the couple’s wish that the house and its contents be donated to the commune of La Châtre. She imagines a working print shop in the garage next door. Over the last few months, Reims, who lives without a computer or cell phone, has received a flurry of letters from young artists seeking her out, inquisitive about her precious skills. Perhaps they are in need of technical limitations too.

  1. “Moi, la gravure, je suis gravée, griffée, éraflée, niellée; je suis une blessure, comme celle de la terre et des corps.” Gilbert Lascault, “Le couple comme un être androgyne, La nouvelle Quinzaine littéraire, no. 876, 2004-05-01. []
  2. All quotations unless noted taken from conversation with the author, 10 March 2016, La Châtre. []
  3. Laure Beaumont-Maillet and Cécile Reims, Passage du témoin: Cécile Reims & les graveurs du XVe au XXIe siècle, affinités électives (Passing the Baton: Cécile Reims and the Engravers of the XVth to XXIst Centuries, Elective Affinities), exh. cat. (Issoudun: Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch, 2012), 18. []
  4. All catalogue raisonné references: Lauren Laz et al., Cécile Reims: L’Œuvre gravé 19452011 (jointly published by the Musée Jenisch in Vevey, France, and 5 Continents Editions in Milan, 2011). []
  5. Cécile Reims, Un itinéraire à inventer, Cécile Reims Graveur (Paris: Préaud et Gheerbrant, Éditions Cercle d’Art, 2000), 101. []
  6. Cécile Reims graveur, portrait filmé, a film by Isabelle Filleul de Brohy, Musée d’art et d’histoire de Judaisme (MAJH), Paris: http://www.mahj.org/fr/1_musee/entretiens-du-Mahj.php?niv=17&ssniv=0 []
  7. “Venez.” Un itinéraire à inventer, 105. []
  8. “Je suis devenue de plus et plus Bellmer et c’était jouissive . . . Je n’étais pas responsible de l’oeuvre.” Cécile Reims graveur. []
  9. “C’est un crayon qui court sur le papier. Moi, j’incise un cuivre: la démarche est totallement différente. Il faut, à un moment donné, et c’est le plus difficile, disparaître. Si je réapparais, si je questionne, la questionne m’empêchera de transcrire.” Cécile Reims à la Chalcographie du musée du Louvre, interview with Pascal Torres Guardiola, 2003 (Bibliotheque nationale de France, Cahiers d’exposition no. 48, 2004), 17. []
  10. Reims does recall a private conversation when Bellmer conceded her right to co-authorship, but he then backed away, using market value as his defense. The writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues first revealed her as Bellmer’s engraver in 1977 after more than a decade. Reims won the legal right to call herself “co-author” after fighting Bellmer’s daughters for the right to exhibit her Bellmer transcriptions under her name. []
  11. Matthieu Chatellier, Voir ce qui vient l’ombre [Drawn from the Shadows]: Un portrait de Cécile Reims et Fred Deux, Moviala Films and Tarvak Films, 2010. []
  12. “Vous êtes un artisan à mon service.” Cécile Reims graveur. []
  13. “Le graveur de metier devait se faire oublier. Pour magnifier l’artiste créateur, on crut nécessaire d’abaisser l’artisan graveur . . . jusqu’à éliminer son nom de la planche qui était son oeuvre.” Beaumont-Maillet and Cécile Reims, 23. []
  14. In 1992, Reims exhibited under the title “Je est un autre” at Paris’ Galerie La Hune-Brenner, followed by “Hans Bellmer par son graveur Cécile Reims” at the Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch, Issoudun. These exhibitions publicized the art of interpretative engraving in France, honoring Reims and culminating in Maxime Préaud’s survey, “Cécile Reims graveur et interprète de Hans Bellmer et de Fred Deux” at Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale in 2006. []
  15. “Je pourrais revenir en gravant cette chenille.” []
  16. Laz, 205. []
  17. Chatellier: “J’ai gravé des centaines de plaques de cuivre. C’est un métal aussi dur que ce que je porte en moi. Et qui ajoute encore du poids à ma compassion pour la souffrance que l’homme inflige à son semblable.” []
  18. Laz, 306. []
  19. Georges Braque, “Pensées et réflexions sur la peinture,” Nord-Sud 10, December 1917 (reprinted in Artists on Art [New York: Pantheon, 1958], 422–423). []
  20. Chatellier: “Ma présence réside précisément en son absence.” []
  21. “Urne funéraire.” []