Dancing shadows – and other marvels drawn by Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis was an Australian artist born in 1881 in Castlemaine, Victoria, the son of a gold-mining engineer who had emigrated from Pembrokeshire, Wales, to Australia during the gold rush, and a woman from Melbourne. From 1990 on she lived mainly in the USA and most of his artistic work was carried out in New York City.

Perhaps for being a newcomer he was so good as a chronicler of American urban life of his time; but much beyond this, his ability to capture adverse weather conditions and obscure light sources, coupled with a keen sense of composition and technical skill, made him one of the greatest printmakers of the twentieth century. His earliest etchings date from 1915; however, these prints show a technical ability above that of most beginner printmakers. As he was known for destroying prints and plates that he found objectionable, it is very possible that he made prints earlier and discarded them. He produced over 147 drypoints, etchings, mezzotints, aquatints, and lithographs between 1915 and 1953. He was a very good watercolourist too, and sometimes worked in oil.

His engravings are, one by one, masterly, both with respect to technique and to seduction power. Lewis captured the life on the streets, the bustle of traffic, the occasional solitude and quietness of a figure or group of them, the elegance of someone’s movements, the wonderful play of the light… as only the printings themselves can tell. And, for that matter, as very few artists are able to do.

I bring here a few of my favourites, beginning with an undisputed chef-d’œuvre: “Shadow Dance”, from 1930 (which, by the way, was Lewis’ most prolific year).

Just look at them:

Shadow Dance (1930 – Drypoint; plate: 24 x 27.7 cm)

Rainy Day, Queens (1931 – Drypoint; plate: 27 x 30.1 cm)

Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children (1929 – Drypoint; plate 25.2 x 32.6 cm)


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