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German Expressionism

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GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM WOODCUT

Woodcut

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Emil Nolde Prophet (1912)

The earliest print technique, woodcut first appeared in China in the ninth century. Arriving in Europe around 1400, it was originally used for stamping designs onto fabrics, textiles, or playing cards. By the 16th century it had achieved the status of an important art form in the work of Albrecht Dürer and other Northern European artists. The Expressionist sought to revive this rich heritage and adopted woodcut as a primary artistic vehicle. Their starkly simplified woodcuts capitalized on the medium's potential for bold, flat patterns and rough hewn effects.

<i>The Night - Large Version</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

The Night - Large Version

(1903)

Woodcut

Kandinsky explained that his woodcuts were driven by an “inner necessity”: regardless of their use or practicality, he had to make them. His experiments in reducing and clarifying his ideas through woodcut proved pivotal in his move from a decorative Jugendstil aesthetic to more expressive and then abstract approaches. The Night does not describe a specific scene, but evokes—like music—a fairytale mood and yearning for a far-off place. It was also, as Kandinsky told his companion Gabriele Münter, a “depiction of love” for her.
<i>Horses Resting</i>

Franz Marc

Horses Resting

1911

Woodcut

Horses Resting was Marc’s first woodcut (and one of only 46 prints he made during his tragically abbreviated career). He was inspired to try the medium by Vasily Kandinsky, with whom he worked on the almanac Der Blaue Reiter, and also by his exposure to the prints of the Brücke group in Berlin. He returned to his favored themes of animals and nature while exploring the possibilities of working directly with the wood and printing the works himself: “I cut everything in wood; the whole working process is a slow one—not the cutting, but thinking in wood—that’s the difficult thing.”
<i>Nude Dancers</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Nude Dancers

(1909)

Woodcut

An extraordinarily passionate printmaker, Kirchner (writing about his own work under a pseudonym) declared, “There is no better place to get to know an artist than in his graphic work.” And for him woodcuts were “the most graphic of the graphic techniques.” In its technique and subject, Nude Dancers shows the liberating effect printmaking had for Kirchner. He did not carve a refined, decorous image of classical nudes, but rather a startling image of movement and artistic freedom. Kirchner defied academic conventions with his bold composition, the visible chisel marks, and stark contrasts of black and white.
<i>Fränzi Reclining</i>

Erich Heckel

Fränzi Reclining

1910

Woodcut

Using a technique that recalls Edvard Munch, Heckel first gouged his image into the woodblock and then cut it into pieces, inking the components separately (here in red and black), before putting them back together like a jigsaw for printing. Heckel simplified the body of Fränzi, one of his favorite models, into the barest essentials, flattening and distorting her gangly frame while preserving a sense of her adolescent energy and awkward movements, so at odds with academic conventions and good taste. He also transferred his interest of African art onto her masklike face.
<i>Prophet</i>

Emil Nolde

Prophet

(1912)

Woodcut

In this icon of Expressionism, as Nolde’s friend and cataloger Gustav Schiefler marveled, “Everything: beard, hair, background lines, appear in him to be reflected from an inner fire.” Nolde wanted his work to grow organically from the material, and here he exploited the bold, reductive quality of the woodcut medium, creating stark contrasts and black and white, particularly in this richly printed impression. He also worked with the grain of the wood to add texture to the prophet’s beard and face.
<i>Fishing Steamer</i>

Emil Nolde

Fishing Steamer

1910

Woodcut

Nolde made most of his 203 woodcuts during productive bursts in 1906, 1912, and 1917. This, however, is one of four he created during a three-week trip to Hamburg in winter 1910. Nolde exploited the grain of the wood to depict the rolling swells of the sea against the blackness of the fishing steamer. His choice of a firm, thick paper allowed the ink to pool on top.
<i>Portrait of a Man</i>

Erich Heckel

Portrait of a Man

(1919)

Woodcut

Heckel offers a trenchant depiction of postwar trauma in this gaunt self-portrait. He applied the jarring colors with a brush, giving the surface a lush, painterly quality at odds with the unease and psychological dissonance in his pose and expression. He exploited the inherent bluntness of woodcut to present the angular, distorted head and hands.
<i>Father Müller</i>
LEFT

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Father Müller

(1918)

Woodcut

RIGHT

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Father Müller

(1918)

Woodcut

Kirchner inscribed the simplicity and craggy texture of rural life onto his sitter’s face. Father Müller was a farmer he met after retreating to the peacefulness of the Alps to escape the trauma of World War I. Printmaking, especially woodcutting, provided a therapeutic outlet for Kirchner at this time. He printed tiny editions by hand; there are five in color and just two in black-and-white of this print.
<i>Saint Francis</i>

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Saint Francis

(1919)

Woodcut

Schmidt-Rottluff’s early woodcuts stunned Edvard Munch, who saw them as a harbinger of things to come. Ultimately, Schmidt-Rottluff made more than 446 woodcuts, fully exploring the medium’s possibilities for intense simplification and monumentality. After the war, he made religion-themed images like this St. Francis, which borrows the bold planes and volumetric modeling of African sculpture to create a timeless figure of faith. Schmidt-Rottluff initially hand-printed his woodcuts in small editions; after 1912, he entrusted his blocks to professional printers.
<i>The Parents</i> (plate 3) <i>from War</i>

Käthe Kollwitz

The Parents (plate 3) from War

(1921-22, published 1923)

Woodcut from a portfolio of seven woodcuts and one woodcut cover

Kollwitz struggled to give shape to the prints in her War series, which dealt with what she called the “suffering through those unspeakable years” of World War I. After seeing an exhibition of Ernst Barlach’s woodcuts, she discarded her attempts in lithography and turned to woodcut. The medium’s bold simplification suited her desire to find a universal testimony to the horrors of war. Kollwitz noted in her diary, “Pain is completely dark,” and progress on the series went slowly as she reworked the prints through many states to achieve the solid, grieving mass of The Parents.
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