Monday, January 16, 2006

The Mezzotints (In A Nutshell)

"To make a Mezzotint of an afternoon like that was like working a jigsaw puzzle. It would take me days to whittle my prose poem down to the required length. Two hundred and fifty words was the maximum that could be printed. I used to write two or three thousand, then reach for the axe."
---- Henry Miller, Plexus (p.99)

I couldn't possibly profile the entire collection of Henry Miller's mezzotints in a single blog post, so count this as an overview.

Late in 1924, while Henry struggled with his newly-ventured Writer's Life--complete with the predictable lack of money--he tried his hand at self-publishing. The original idea, apparently, came from Henry's good friend Joe O'Reagan. Miller would write new material, but also draw upon his own stash of old letters and unpublished prose pieces, just as long as he printed one 250-word document a week. Each piece would be printed on coloured card stock, in quantities of 100 or more.

In Plexus, pages 97-100, Miller writes about the creation of the project and the efforts of Joe, Henry and June [who lived together during this period at 91 Remsen Street, pictured above left] to sell copies to friends and strangers in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in New York City. It was a tough sell; even friends "weren't very enthusiastic [... they] were dubious that I could keep it up for a year. They knew me well." June soon convinced Henry to allow her to put her name on the pieces and to sell them as her own. With her feminine charms, June was able to unload armfuls of the mezzotints, usually for all the wrong reasons.
In the Spring of 1935, Miller reported to Emil Schnellock that he'd created 35 mezzotint titles to date. Although one of these, A Bowery Phoenix would be published in Pearson's Monthly Review in February 1925, Miller's plan to sell subscriptions to the series was a failure. To make sure that his work was being read, Miller even resorted to sending copies to random people in the telephone book. Later in 1925, opening a speakeasy with June became a more reliable option for making ends meet, so the mezzotint project came to an end.

In 1927, an artist friend of Henry's named Hans Stengel thought he could illustrate the collection of mezzotints and get it published by Knopf or Liveright. Stengel's suicide shortly afterward put an end to that.

What exactly is a mezzotint? If you're that interested, take a look at this explanation, or this, or this. The finished look of a mezzotint is impressionistic in a way, very pixilated and grainy. Miller credits Whistler as the influence, though I don't know why, except maybe as an allusion to his impressionistic style. The metaphor being, I guess, that Miller is writing his own "impressions."

Roger Jackson has published, in a limited edition, reproduction of the mezzotints along with a history, in 1993's The Mezzotints. Antiqbook has a picture of this collection (which I've borrowed from for my posting). If you want to track one of these down for your own collection, keep the edition in mind, as some only contain eight reproductions, while others contain photocopies of every piece.

In the next week or so, I'll post a run-down of the individual mezzotint titles, and various anecdotes connected with some of them.

The picture of the mouth on the banner art is a cropped section of a mezzotint print done by artits Chuck Close. I chose it because it's a mezzotint and has a slight resemblance to the mouth of Henry Miller.

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