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LODZ 1891 – PARIS 1951

Although, like Villon, he had learned the use of his tools from conventional reproduction engravers, he commenced to analyze the action of cutting with a burin into copper, and to construct from the most elementary and simple strokes of the tool an image which should have a discrete existence of its own, not merely a vicarious existence in terms of its dependence upon some third object. At the same time he possessed an extreme sensitivity to all the qualities of a line – rigidity, flexibility, resilience – and saw the character of life in the line itself, not the description of life by means of the line. An examination of the prints of Hecht...will show that there is not a limp or dead line in them. – S.W. Hayter

Joseph Hecht’s intaglio prints mark him as one of the important printmakers of the twentieth century, and yet he is virtually unknown today. One can only speculate on the cause of this anonymity – perhaps it is simply bad luck – for there are numerous and compelling reasons to remember Hecht not only as an artist, but also as an innovative technician and as an influence and source for other artists.
Hecht was born on December 14, 1891, in Lodz, a textile center southwest of Warsaw. Even as a young boy Hecht was interested in becoming an artist. His father, a Jewish clothier, encouraged the family’s appreciation of the arts but considered such a career to be a difficult one from a material standpoint. Hecht’s two sisters urged him to persevere and finally the boy’s father agreed to allow Joseph to pursue his studies with the support of his family. Thus, at the age of eighteen, Hecht entered the Academie Beaux-Arts in Krakow where he was to follow a traditional course of study for five years.
On completion of his studies in Krakow, Hecht visited museums throughout Europe. The outbreak of World War I found him in Berlin. Hecht went to neutral Norway for the remainder of the war. The natural setting of Norway led Hecht to discover and begin to exploit light and the landscape in his work, and a number of fine drypoints and engravings were executed during this period.
Immediately following the armistice, Hecht traveled to Italy and two years later, to Paris where he maintained his studio until his death. At this time Hecht became a member of the Salon d’Automne, thereby gaining entrée into the Parisian art world and a chance to exhibit his work on a regular basis.
The decades between 1919 and 1939 were productive ones. Hecht exhibited broadly and produced many drypoints and engravings, a smaller number of etchings, and a handful of woodcuts. It was during these years when his greatest influence was felt by the artists who were in contact with him. For example, in April of 1926 a young Englishman, Stanley William Hayter, arrived in Paris. Through a mutual friend Hecht and Hayter met and a month or two later Hecht was helping Hayter to print his first drypoint.
Hecht was renowned as a stickler for all details of his work and the materials used in it. He had Montval paper with his own coat-of-arms as a watermark made by Gaspard Maillol, brother of the sculptor; he ground his own printing ink and established innovative printing procedures. Only late in his career did he permit anyone other than himself to print his plates and then it was his son, Maik, and much later, the master printer, George Leblanc.
The year 1926 provided a turning point in Hecht’s career and heralded the most successful period of his life. He published his first suite of six prints, l’Arche de Noe, which included a preface by the French symbolist Gustave Kahn and was exhibited at the Paris gallery Le nouvel essor in December of 1926. A laudatory catalogue article was written by Hecht’s future collaborator, mystical narrator Andre Suares. The images that Hecht developed at this time found renewed vigor in 1928 when Suares and Hecht collaborated on the folio, Atlas. In Atlas Hecht began to re-combine images and forms he had previously studied – a working method which he refined throughout his life.
In 1927 Hecht’s encouragement of Hayter’s printmaking activities led to the establishment of the Atelier 17, a cooperative printmaking studio which endures to this day.
In 1929 Hecht became a founding member of La Jeune Gravure Contemporaine, which staged annual group shows and was influential in keeping the spirit of printmaking alive. Hecht also associated with members of Les Peintres-Graveurs Independants, founded in 1923 by Jean Emile Labourer and Raoul Dufy. It is doubtful that Hecht associated closely with each member of these groups, but it is highly probable that he was familiar with their work and they with his and this provided a rich opportunity for the exchange of techniques, subjects, and ideas. Indeed Hecht was an intermediary (possibly unique) between the artists of Atelier 17, with their strong avant-garde bias, and the more traditional printmakers of the time.
With the approach of World War II there was a diminution in Hecht’s production. Hecht was not only of Polish origin but he was also Jewish – his adoption of French citizenship offered him little protection and the threat to his safety was very real. He ultimately left Paris to live in a borrowed house in the Savoy region near the Swiss-Italian border. There, Hecht spent the duration of the war working as an agricultural laborer.
In 1946, when Hayter returned to France from the United States, he re-established contact with Hecht and found him in poor health, depressed, and not working. Hayter decided to “con” Hecht (as he said) into working again. He got a huge copper plate, took it to Hecht’s studio, and started to engrave. As planned, Hecht could not resist picking up a burin and working on the plate. The result is the collaborative print, La Noyee.
Although he complained of weakened eyesight at the time, Hecht gradually regained enthusiasm for his work, produced a number of new engravings, and developed innovative methods of printing engravings in relief as well. He died of a heart attack in his Paris studio on June 19, 1951 at the age of 59.

From: Dolan/Maxwell Gallery, Philadelphia, 1985.