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Timeless impressions 

Talent is never enough, at least not in the art world. Of course talent's important, but timing is everything. And if an artist wanted to be noticed, the early 20th century was no time to be doing Rembrandt.

            Portrait of Life: The Etchings of Arthur William Heintzelman, at the Memorial Art Gallery, showcases the work of an artist with undisputed skill and compelling subject matter, but no timing. That's why you've probably never heard of him. But it's not a good reason to miss the show.

            All of the prints on display at the MAG were donated to the gallery in 1959. They were placed in the works-on-paper archive and pretty much forgotten. Museums are more likely to show the work of household-name artists over and over again than to take a chance on an obscure artist like Heintzelman.

            In this case, MAG preparator Carol Acquilano, a printmaker herself, spotted the etchings in a drawer and thought they deserved more attention. MAG curators encouraged Acquilano to organize a show around the neglected prints. The result is a wonderful exhibition in the Lockhart Gallery that may prove to be a major step toward bringing Heintzelman out of his undeserved obscurity.

            Heintzelman (1891-1965) was a precocious artist who entered the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design at 14. He taught at the Detroit School of Design until 1921, when he moved to Paris. By 1941 Heintzelman was back in America, where he became the keeper of prints at the Boston Public Library.

            Paris in the 1920s and 1930s belonged to the modernists: abstract painters and sculptors like Picasso, Arp, and Miro and surrealists like Dali and Tanguy. In an art world that tends to view history as a linear progression of innovation, experimentation is rewarded, tradition is not. The fact that Heintzelman persevered with his realistic style is undoubtedly the reason why he is overshadowed by his more revolutionary contemporaries.

            While Picasso broke the figure into planes and Dali wrestled with Freudian concepts, Heintzelman took off in the tradition of Rembrandt. A Rembrandt etching, The Card Player, is included in the show to illustrate similarities in Heintzelman's use of crosshatching, lighting, and positioning of figures. Like Rembrandt, Heintzelman often created an etching and then intensified the dark areas --- throwing light areas into high contrast --- by scoring directly into the plate with a sharp etching needle.

            The preliminary drawing for Moravian Child hangs beside the etching. While the drawing's subtle tones appear mundane, the richer tones in the etching enliven the image.

            The show includes two versions of Vigneron (1930), providing insight into Heintzelman's process. The earlier print is more intense in its lighting, but contains only the subject's head and shoulders. The complete etching shows the full upper body with hands holding a bowl. A note on the label explains that the man depicted worked in Heintzelman's vineyard, where workers were allowed eight quarts of wine per day, served in bowls.

            Interspersed among the portraits are a few etchings dealing with slices of Parisian life. In Café Montmartrois (1925) a cellist and guitarist play for a crowd of men while a woman dances in the center of the room. A life-size crucifixion sculpture mounted on the back wall of the café provides a wonderfully incongruous touch. In La Farandole (1929) an accordion player extends his instrument while vaguely drawn women dance wildly in the background.

            One of the strongest sections of the exhibition is a wall consisting of small portrait etchings. Heintzelman's ability to render his subjects from any point of view is beautifully demonstrated in works that are no more than two or three inches high or wide. Amfortas (1933) gazes upward, while the man in Etude de Tet No. 1 (no date) looks down.

            In Study of a Bearded Man (no date) the hair and beard are executed in directional strokes of the etching needle, nicely demonstrating the expressive power of the medium. Every face, from The Balloon Man to The Rabbi (both 1915), beautifully conveys the personality, expression, and character of the subject.

Portrait of Life: The Etchings of Arthur William Heintzelman continues through September 8 at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Avenue. Admission: $7, $5 for college students with ID and seniors, $3 for children 6-18, and $2 Thursday evening from 5 to 9 p.m. Info: 473-7720.

Speaking of Arthur William Heintzelman, Memorial Art Gallery

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