PILGRIMS PROGRESS ETCHINGS
by John Berger
8th March 1958
Peri is primarily a sculptor and so it is not surprising that his attitude as an engraver and etcher is similar to Mantegna's. Yet his vision is not pseudo-Renaissance. Like both medieval and modern artists, he uses multiple perspectives instead of a single one, and a dual scale, the important figures are large, the less important small. Nevertheless his masterly austerity remains reminiscent of Mantegna. The aquatint blacks may be very rich but every line defines and states a form: in fact, for twentieth-century works (and Peri was once an abstract sculptor) these are most unusually finished. They vibrate only on the far side of their meaning; the side nearest to us is as challenging in its clarity as an open face.
Of the eighteen plates only three, by comparison with the others, fail in intensity particularly the one of Vanity Fair. The five greatest I used the word advisedly - imprint images that are unforgettable. There is the Pilgrim setting out, like a man leaving prison, advancing into the Bedfordshire landscape which is as free and airy as the idea of it must have been to Bunyan lying in gaol. There is the Pilgrim facing an imposing classical building, the entrance to which is guarded by two ferocious animals the peasant before the bureaucrat's door. There is the Pilgrim in gaol himself, each separate stone of the walls hitting him between the eyes so that he must begin to count them calmly to make them recede again into their proper place. There is the Pilgrim (but might he not now be called a man of our time?) being shown by the light of the Inspector's flare cell-like compartments of a modern city. There is the man pushing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the white shadow he casts being his own skeleton, his pursuers his own mind-forged manacles. Indeed Blake is apt. For these also are works of Innocence and Experience, based on the conviction that grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.
Also all of them, except the last, describe suffering and indomitability, and no one has explained this paradox better than Blake.
It is difficult not to make Peri’s work sound too literary. The problem is that one is describing works which, although they use purely visual means, embody a man’s comments on life, and these comments are so human and so direct that one takes the means for granted. And so, I imagine, does Peri himself. These, are very unselfconscious works. Nowhere can you prise the technique away from its purpose. The slightly sullied white of relief-etching is automatically used for the white of a skeleton. The engraved crosshatching round the form of a figure becomes also a description of his clothes, folds and drawing lines become one. Perspective becomes the visual continuation of the protagonist’s gaze, of his hopes. In the plate called the Death of Faithful, two horses, pulling a cart in which the corpse slumps, rear forward and up into the sky, so that, although they are full of energy and movement, the bodies of these horses hang huge and suspended in the middle of the print rather like carcasses in a butcher’s shop. As one looks at them, one’s eye is led by the thousands of lines bitten into the copper, from the single hind hoof on the ground, up round the rump, along the backbone with the flanks falling away on either side, round the twisted neck with the mane blown sideways like grass in a hurricane, between the lying-back ears over the skull’s protrudence, to the bared teeth that touch the sky. In other words the etched lines and bitten black shapes which describe these horses also chart and describe one’s only possible reaction to them.
There are no conventions in Peri’s art, and in this sense only he is an unsophisticated artist. The impression of the subject on the artist’s mind appears to be identical to the impression on the copper plate: the acid and the burin appear to be the direct agents of emotion and imagination. And it is this unity, even more than Peri’s inventiveness and technical mastery, which convinces me that these are works which will last. All publishers and others who do not wish to be shamed by history should visit this exhibition.