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Woodcut

6. 20th century

Source: Oxford University Press

The history of the 20th-century woodcut cannot be entirely isolated from that of other artistic media, most notably wood-engraving and Linocut. In contrast to the previous century, the woodcut flourished in the 20th century, especially in the years before World War II and in the work of the German Expressionists, although almost every leading international movement took up the medium as an important means of expression. Although it was largely neglected in the decades following the war, monumental works of the 1980s and 1990s have rediscovered the unique qualities of the woodcut.

(i) Revival: pre-World War II

In the first three decades of the 20th century in regional centres in Europe and the USA earlier woodcut traditions continued. Under the influence of Art Nouveau the decorative style flourished in Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Paris and elsewhere, through such artists as W. List, Carl Moll and Emil Orlik; both woodcut and linocut were media ideally suited to long sinewy contours and flat passages of colour. In the USA similar works of great quality were produced by A. W. Dow (1857–1922), Gustave Baumann (1881–1971) and others. In England the work of William Morris might be seen to be continued in that of Eric Gill, whose involvement with biblical and other book illustrations was a sign of the continuing link between the woodcut and the book since the great biblical works of the 16th century. Along with other artists, particularly in Britain, where wood-engraving enjoyed a great revival in the first decades of the century, Gill transferred freely between the woodcut and wood-engraving. In the 20th century artists who adopted the medium of woodcut still worked to the examples of Gauguin and Munch. Munch, who continued to work in the medium until his death (1944), combined a long, sinewy cutting style with a flat perspective, bold use of colour and extensive use of the wood grain to produce powerful images of Melancholy (see 1983 MOMA exh. cat., no. 72) and Angst (see 1983 MOMA exh. cat., p. iv) reinforced by the qualities of the medium itself and hence often stronger than his work on canvas or in any other medium.

In France the Fauves led the way: André Derain, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck all adopted the medium in the first few years of the century; working mainly in single colours (in contrast to their paintings), they began to cut with bold and irregular strokes to produce primitive-looking images in the new tradition. Matisse explored the nude, before abandoning woodcut for his greater capabilities with etching and lithography. Vlaminck’s large number of woodcuts (105) include the Head of a Woman of c. 1906 (see 1983 MOMA exh. cat., no. 11), which exudes a mood of simplicity and contemplation similar in nature to the Pont-Aven school. Derain and Dufy developed away from the roughly hewn woodcuts of the early Fauve works to more harmonious and regular cutting. Dufy’s Fishing (c. 1908; Castleman, no. 10) is reminiscent of the spirit of Divisionist painting, in that each stroke or cut is an object in the print. At the same time Aristide Maillol was prolific in the medium, producing woodcut illustrations for the reproduction of high-quality books, such as Longus’ Daphnis et Chloe and Virgil’s Georgics.

The activity of woodcut production by the leading avant-garde artists over the next decades owed a great deal to the work of leading and inspirational publishers and patrons, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Ambroise Vollard and Tériade in France and Graf Harry Kessler (d 1937) in Germany, who actively sought out the finest contemporary artists and writers for combined projects to be produced to the highest quality to meet (and often exceed) the demand for de luxe editions of livres d’artistes from a learned and wealthy public. Such high-quality book production continued mainly until the late 1950s; after World War II they included less avant-garde works by Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró and others.

In Germany, under the influence of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and the Fauves and the prints of Munch, and inspired by the early German workshops of Lucas Cranach I, Albrecht Dürer and others, the artists of Die Brücke (first in Dresden, then in Berlin) brought about the most significant revival of the woodcut as an avant-garde expressive in the 20th century. Rejecting (and rejected by) the formal academies and Secession group (Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt and others), whose leading artists produced sumptuous and painterly etchings and lithographs during the 19th-century printmaking revival, the artists of Die Brücke set up the Neue Secession, an exhibition group, and, while also working in other printmaking media, adopted the woodcut as their most powerful means of expression. They quickly abandoned a decorative fin-de-siècle style (c. 1906), and, combining European influences with African motifs and forms known to them from the recent discoveries of European explorers and exhibits in the ethnographic collections in Dresden, they worked aggressively on the woodblocks to produce sharp angles, broad diagonals and roughly hewn, shaded patches. Each of the four leading artists of Die Brücke (Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff) all created primitive nudes of haunting beauty or savagery, startling and intense portraits, and vivid and dynamic landscapes and townscapes.

Kirchner is probably best known for his psychologically intense Berlin street scenes of 1914, although his large woodcut portrait heads of 1916 and his later Swiss landscapes, among others, are also of great significance. Immediately after the tragedies of World War I, Pechstein and Schmidt-Rottluff triggered a powerful rebirth of the woodcut as a medium for religious devotion with their monumental portfolios of the Lord’s Prayer (Pechstein, 1921; e.g. Give Us our Daily Bread, Gordon, pl. 11) and Nine Woodcuts (Rottluff; see Schiefler).

The artists of Die Brücke worked mainly in the traditional black and white but also produced startling effects with colours boldly applied in monotypal fashion to the blocks. Emil Nolde, active on the north German coast, produced numerous woodcuts, The Prophet (1912; see 1983 MOMA exh. cat., p. v) being one of the most dramatic examples. Ernst Barlach combined imagery from harsh German peasant life, biblical sources and mysticism to express the relationship between a higher being and Man. His series Metamorphic Creations of God (1920; Castleman, no. 22) and the illustrations to Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht (Berlin, 1923) are most characteristic of this type. In Dresden, Conrad Felixmüller’s woodcuts treated subjects from his immediate circle and from the working classes in the city and surrounding country, and in Berlin the work of Käthe Kollwitz (including Death with a Woman in his Lap, 1921, Bread, 1922, the Great War series, 1922–3, and others) championed the struggle of the proletariat and glorified the individual in the face of poverty and starvation. The stark contrast of richly inked passages of black against white, which she achieved with a restrained use of line, intensifies her provocative cry for the cause of the poor.

In southern Germany, around Munich, in the early part of the century the most progressive work was being pursued by the artists of the Blaue Reiter. Franz Marc and Heinrich Campendonck explored lyrical themes of nature and creation, intertwining multitudes of curved and flowing lines and contrasting passages of black and white, resulting in semi-abstract compositions. Vasily Kandinsky’s work developed from his delicate early part-Jugendstil, part-Russian folk style, with such woodcuts as a Woman with a Fan (1903), subtly printed in colour on fine Japanese paper (he also employed the linocut to create similar works at the time), through to his finest abstractions, where the medium was ideal for contrasting colour planes. It was also used to great effect in his influential book Klänge (Munich, 1913) and in later works, including the most effective plates in the Kleine Welter portfolio (1922).

At the Bauhaus, Lyonel Feininger created some of the finest woodcuts, in which he made use of the angular and geometric elements of Cubism, which he incorporated into his city and marine subjects. Other Bauhaus artists, including Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, also exploited the woodcut effectively in their geometric abstractions. Max Beckmann and Otto Dix made only a few explorations into the medium before their styles took them away from a primitive means of expression, but Dix’s Nine Woodcuts (1919–21) present dramatic visions of German life after World War I. The woodcut flourished all over Germany until World War II in an explosion of printmaking activity that included the production of numbers of fine portfolios, such as German Graphics of the Present (Leipzig, 1920) and Ganymede (Munich, 1919–25), and the inclusion of original woodcuts in literary publications, such as Der Zweemann (Hannover, 1919–26) and Genius (Leipzig, 1919–21) and Socialist political pamphlets including Revolution (Munich, 1913) and Die Aktion (Berlin, 1911–32), in which woodcut was considered as a medium worthy of proletarian political art.

Belgian Expressionism followed lines similar to its counterpart in Germany, with the work of Jozef Cantré, Frans Masereel and others. Edgard Tytgat also produced highly individual colour woodcuts in a folk style. Of the Dada artists, Hans Arp made most extensive use of the medium for its planar qualities in representing his biomorphic forms, although the screenprint later served him well for similar reasons. Marcel Janco also made use of the medium in a limited number of works. In Britain Edward Wadsworth was responsible for some of the purest examples of Vorticist abstraction in woodcuts in 1917–19. Flat planes, cut sharply and in intricate pattern, bear striking results (e.g. Dry Docked for Scaling and Painting, 1918, and Dazzle-Ship in Dry Dock, 1918).

In Japan, the traditional home of the woodcut, there was little development in the first three decades of the century. While progressive Japanese painters had become strongly influenced by Western styles, the woodcut was still firmly bound up with the complex relationship between artist and artisans in the community. K. Yamamoto and Kōshirō Onchi were among the first to look to European woodcut for inspiration. In the late 1920s U. Hiratsuka was one of the first to adopt the Western technique of cutting directly on to the block. His student Shikō Munakata is generally considered the most influential Japanese artist of the century. He became associated with the Mingei movement (a return to rural craftsmanship), and in combining Buddhist figures, Japanese legends and other traditional images in his subjects, he handcut (with a directness akin to the German Expressionists) the blocks, which when printed maintained the character of the wood.

In the 1930s and 1940s artists in Mexico and South America also made use of the woodcut as a form of proletarian expression to protest about social conditions. These artists included David Alfaro Siqueiros and Antonio Frasconi. Diego Rivera also worked to great effect with the woodblock. In the USA Leonard Baskin was also attracted to the possibilities of political expression through the medium and became a leading exponent of the woodcut.

(ii) Post-war developments

In the decades following World War II, while some of the more mature artists continued to work in the medium, either for high-quality livres d’artistes or, as in the case of the artists formerly of Die Brücke, to produce less dynamic work in their earlier styles, others often exploited different media (particularly the screenprint) to create their images: the mainly younger artists involved in the printmaking booms of the 1960s and 1970s in Paris and across Germany frequently made use of lithography and etching. The artists associated with such movements as Pop, Op and kinetic art in London and New York worked extensively with the lithograph and screenprint. Those making somewhat rare use of woodcut in the 1960s included Donald Judd and Frank Stella. Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract woodcut compositions from the 1970s onwards, which were printed on oriental papers, convey an impression of stained canvas. Charles Summer’s compositions were imbued with the philosophy of Zen Buddhism.

In Germany, Ewald Mataré’s woodcuts may be viewed as providing a transition from the work of the German Expressionists to that of such late 20th-century artists as A. R. Penck and H. A. P. Grieshaber (1909–81). The brutally cut blocks of Georg Baselitz reflect a return to the more traditional media during the 1980s. In Britain this was demonstrated in the work of Michael Rothenstein (b 1908). In the USA in the 1980s, after limited work in the medium in the 1970s, even such leading Pop artists as Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein produced major woodcut images . Other artists who employed it include Susan Rothenburg and Francesco Clemente, who explored another stage of tradition by using skilled East Asian woodblock cutters to produce extremely delicate representations of his images. Friedensreich Hundertwasser used Japanese woodcutters in Austria to produce major works alongside his screenprints.

Katharina Mayer Haunton
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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