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Artist Antonio Frasconi Dies at 93

2013 January 30

Frasconi’s woodcuts chronicled struggles for justice…

“There are, at the base of society as it is now, two different kinds of human beings. One is a member of that class which acts against the interests, against the potential, Frasconi-1943of the great majority…The other kind of human being is us – those who resist.”

Uruguayan/American woodcut artist Antonio Frasconi died on January 8, 2013, at the age of 93. One of the sad yet sometimes uplifting aspects of getting old is watching the heroes of younger days pass from the scene. Frasconi’s work inspired me, for a brief period, to try to become a graphic artist. Not a good plan – but the attempt was one of many factors that helped me find my way into another visual medium.
            Frasconi was born in 1919, in Argentina but his parents, immigrants from Italy, moved to Uruguay within weeks of his birth. He came to the U.S. at the end of World War II, initially working as a gardener and museum guard, but he quickly established his reputation as an artist. According to the New York Times obituary, by Douglas Martin, in 1953 Time magazine called him “America’s foremost practitioner of the ancient art of the woodcut. Four decades later, Art Journal called him the best of his generation.” (Illustration above left, 1943.)
Frasconi-Students            Look at the grain of the wood underlying his 1972 Woody Guthrie tribute, at the bottom of this post. In a 1963 Time Magazine piece quoted by Martin, he said “Sometimes the wood gives you a break, and matches your conception of the way it is grained. But often you must surrender to the grain, find the movement of the scene, the mood of the work, in the way the grain runs.”
            His medium may have been ancient, but his message, though rooted in printmaking tradition, was anything but. Again from the  Times obituary:“He decried art education, saying the average student does not learn the pertinent questions, much less the answers. He abhorred art that dwelt on aesthetics at the expense of social problems. He repeatedly addressed war, racism and poverty, and devoted a decade to completing a series of woodcut portraits of people who were tortured and killed under a rightist military dictatorship in his home country, Uruguay, from 1973 to 1985.”             
            Frasconi illustrated children’s books, music albums and other media, but returned again and again to political themes. The 1971 illustration above right (showing half of the original print) is from his “Law and Order” series, and represents the National Guard killings of Students at Kent State University. “A sort of anger builds in you, so you try to spill it back in your work.” he said. In his introduction to the 1974 collection, Frasconi: Against the Grain, historian and music critic Nat Hentoff quotes the artist:

Frasconi-Bird2“There are, at the base of society as it is now, two different kinds of human beings. One is a member of that class which acts against the interests, against the potential, of the great majority of men. He is always harming the rest of us in one way or another. The other kind of human being is us – those who resist. Those who do not, as in Brecht’s “Song of a Stormtrooper,” eventually, mindlessly, become shaped into instruments of death. I want that class of men to be identified. This is probably the basic theme of my work, along with the wonder of life itself.”

A good introduction to the artist, and to his work up to the 1970′s,  Frasconi: Against the Grain is out of print, but copies are available online from Alibris, Amazon, and other sources.




One comment on “Artist Antonio Frasconi Dies at 93

  1. Jane McPherson on said:

    Thank you, Ben, for this lovely story. I’ve seen the work, but I didn’t know the tale. I will go off to learn more now.

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