Themes from Nabokov's work provided the starting point for this series of etchings, but the prints are not illustrations of events in his fiction. Instead they are a response both to atmosphere and feeling, and to his formal inventiveness.

When reading Nabokov two aspects emerged:

The single illuminated instant, clearly focused and sharply seen.

The texture of time: the stream of unfolding moments, reflected, refracted, repeated, and obscured.

With this in mind, these prints should be viewed as one piece of work with inter-related parts. Within the sequence are structured repetitions, contrasts, parallels, and doubles.

Etching is an exacting process and a method of making images that is appropriate to Nabokov's recurring themes of reflection and duplication. The final print is a mirror image of the etched plate. The part of the process called stopping-out involves painting onto the plate with a black varnish over those areas to be protected from the acid and which will eventually appear as white on the printed page. Etching is a procedure of balancing opposites. The reworking and revisions possible to the etched plate allow the image to develop between light and dark as the plate is etched in acid, reworked, scraped back and burnished, then re-ground, re-drawn, and re-etched, sometimes again and again.

As a printmaker I am concerned with the formality of the image: how the composition fits into the rectangle, how the light and darks balance, how to make the drawing clear while allowing the meaning of the image to retain some ambiguity and life. There are important technical considerations as well: pages of the two notebooks used in making this series are covered with notations of timings of how long to leave the etching plate in the acid bath and hastily made notes on how an image might be improved. Etching is a rational procedure but one whose results are never completely foreseeable.

Some of the prints were finished in one session (Knife and Bowl, Girl with Long Hair); more often they developed over a number of weeks. The complicated and detailed mask of Laughter in the Dark was completed in two days, but the apparently simple background required several weeks and many drastic reworkings to get right, including cutting down the plate. A considerable number of etchings were abandoned and do not appear here; others were left for six months or more before I felt willing to risk ruining the thing, if necessary, for a chance of achieving a satisfying resolution (The German Woman, Mirror).

Generally speaking, subjects were drawn from my immediate surroundings. Nabokov's books had to reach out to me. Tracking down photographs of his homes and haunts struck me as a scholarly pursuit. The Berlin Window from which Ganin looks out in the early novel Mary is a window of my house; Door, conceivably a part of Cincinnatus' prison cell, is the old door to my pantry. Some prints were based on photographs from my childhood, which have hung in my studio for years, and which now seemed absolutely appropriate points of reference. Thus the dappled light of Nabokov's nostalgia finds an echo in one's own experience ("the ever-present past"). I also drew from imagery from two lands that Nabokov was forced to flee, Russia and Germany.

There were other sources: film stills, old postcards, and documentary photographs. Much time was spent altering images digitally, simplifying them, cropping out all but essential parts, or altering the character of the original scene before making the etching. Winter Road began as a drawing made in high summer. On other occasions I set up still lives and drew spontaneously, directly onto the etching plate (Rusted Blade and Vertical Blade).

Sometimes a single sentence from Nabokov would connect to a visual idea. The fragment running through my head while making the print Globe was "The cradle rocks above an abyss..." from the opening lines of Speak, Memory. The image does not depict a cradle but may suggest consciousness within darkness. It may also be an echo of Nabokov's remark, "A colored spiral in a small ball of glass, that is how I see my life."

There are occasions when the motif reflects a state of mind. The pair of prints Empty Road and Winter Road, for example, may capture some of the existential anguish of Hermann Hermann in Despair. However, I also view the empty road stretching forward as the necessary condition in which the artist must find himself. Similarly, the prints which make up the sequence The Darkened Room include both a suggestion of the bleak cell (Door and Curtain) and of the solitude essential to the writer (Writing) and from which something positive might eventually arise (Glory). Possible meanings reach in different directions; the Rusted Blade may do harm or may simply exemplify the inadequate tools the artist and writer have no choice but to use in an attempt to construct something both meaningful and lasting.

Nabokov said that he thought in images. Sometimes these are radiant, The water-lily on the river, sometimes desperate, where dark stars pierce the heart. This series of works records a transmutation, catalyzed by the printmaker's art, of Nabokov's genius into black ink on a white page.

Alan Turnbull
November 2005

(For more information about the artist, see his Web page at Newcastle University.)

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