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The Resurgence of Relief Printing in Early 20th Century America: Woodcuts

Relief prints use the raised relief of a printing matrix, such as a block of wood, to carry the ink to make prints.  A rubber stamp is essentially a relief print.  If you made prints as a kindergartener by carving a potato with a plastic knife, you have made a relief print.  Woodcut is the oldest printmaking technique and was popular in both Asia and in Europe.  It predates the year 1,000 AD. 

In Western art, as early as the 16th century printmakers like Albrecht Dürer saw the short comings of the technique, compared to the slightly newer technique of engraving and intaglio printing.i Western printing, with its emphasis on line, modeling, and intricate detail, found the engraving process much easier.  It roughly approximates drawing; a technique with which Renaissance artists were already familiar.  The carving of a wood block to create a relief, requires strength and its own special skill set to create any level of detail.  In the engraving process it is easier to rectify any mistakes, and the copper plates used for engravings hold up to the repeated use and pressure of the printing press much more effectively than wooden blocks. 

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), St. Christopher, 1511, woodcut on laid paper with a bear watermark.
Sold for $11,070.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), The Large Horse, 1505, a late impression, engraving on paper.
Sold for $2,750.

Dürer’s remarkable St. Christopher woodcut, though highly detailed, lacks the mass of his The Large Horse engraving.  The fine lines of the engraving create a much more modeled, three-dimensional horse, where the giant saint and his young charge are relatively flat.

In the 17th and 18th century, woodcuts are seldom made in the West.  Late in the 19th century the woodcut technique was revived, both in Europe and America.  There are myriad reasons, but most important among them, is the appetite of the Western art market for all things Japanese.  Collectors began buying up Japanese woodblock prints in droves, and artists admired the flattened spaces and relative abstraction as very Modern. 

Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), Ashida, from the series 
Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido, color woodblock print.
Sold for $338.

The Arts and Crafts movement further fueled Western interest in woodcuts.  This movement fought against the mass-produced mechanization of 19th century fine and decorative arts, espousing a return to traditional craft techniques to make works by hand. 

In America, one of the most influential artists who imbodied both the Arts and Crafts movement and the interest in Japanese printing techniques was Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow’s ideas about design were widely circulated through his seminal text Composition, first published in 1899. As an instructor at the Art Students League and the Pratt Institute and head of the Art Education Department at Columbia, Dow’s theories were widely respected and disseminated.ii 

Arthur Wesley Dow (American, 1857-1922), Newbury Willows,  c. 1921,
color woodcut on paper.
Sold for $3,318.

Dow employed his theories of line, notan (the arrangement of areas of light and dark areas or patterns), and color to record the landscapes of the North Shore of Massachusetts in both oil paintings and woodcuts.  The relationship between Dow and Hiroshige are obvious.  Both utilize broad areas of color that are defined by fine outlines printed in black. Both forego the use of black lines in the sky and make short clusters of lines in the foreground to imply grass.  Dow’s perspective, though not as tilted and flattened as Hiroshige’s, utilizes a very high horizon line that hints at a more Eastern approach to space and perspective.   

The complexity of the Japanese technique of woodcut requires great dexterity and mastery.  This was one of its appeals to American artists of the Arts and Crafts movement.  The artist begins by transferring a design onto the key block.  For this block the artist carves away nearly all of the block’s surface, leaving behind only the lines which would delineate the contours of the elements within the composition.  These contours were meant to be exceedingly fine lines, thus requiring the use of a sturdy hard wood for the block, making the carving slow and difficult.  The key block was then printed onto all subsequent blocks like a template, allowing the artist to carve a succession of blocks, generally one for each color to be printed. 

In the Japanese method the fine lines of the key block were calligraphic in nature and were inevitably printed in black.  In the West artists readily saw the key block as an element that could be manipulated or skipped entirely.   The American shift away from the strict rules of the Eastern tradition began incrementally, and artists embraced such changes for different technical and visual effects.  

Artists like Eliza Draper Gardiner began to widen the lines of the key block and play with their color.  The result was a less refined, more primitive look, in keeping with the Arts and Crafts style.   

Eliza Draper Gardiner (American, 1871-1955), The Turtle,
color woodcut on paper.
Sold for $2,252.
Eliza Draper Gardiner (American, 1871-1955), Passaconway, before 1920, color woodcut on paper.
Sold with a second work for $677.

In The Turtle Gardiner uses cobalt blue rather than black ink for printing her key block.  The rest of composition is dominated by shades of blue and blue-green.  The result is that the blue lines of the key block begin to hint at shadows, rather than acting purely as refined contours. This is a technique that she evolved over time until the key block essentially disappears.   In Passaconway the contours of the key block are gone.  She employs a blue similar to the one used in The Turtle, but now instead of acting as a key block, the lines of this blue are thicker, and used purely to create shadows. 

Gustave Baumann dispensed with the outlines of the key block completely.  His subjects – views of the rolling hills of Indiana and native tribes and adobe dwellings of New Mexico – are wholly American.  His consistent lack of a key block heightens the Western qualities of his works.  In spite of this, several of his landscapes conspicuously reflect the Asian roots of the woodcut technique. 

Gustave Baumann (German/American, 1881-1971), Spring Blossoms, 1950, color woodcut with metal leaf on oatmeal laid paper with hand-in-heart watermark.
Sold for $8,610.

His Spring Blossoms, is essentially flat and two dimensional.  A high horizon line creates a backdrop for the main subject: the fruit tree is dense with blossoms, and very sculptural in shape. It is a clear nod to a subject popular in the East.  Furthermore, the use of a silvery metal leaf in the background is reminiscent of Japanese screens. 

If Dow, Gardiner, and Baumann strove for an Arts and Crafts aesthetic, other printmakers were looking to create something thoroughly Modern.  The white-line technique, also known as the Provincetown print, emerged around 1915.  It was an ingenious way of simplifying the arduous, Japanese method of creating color woodcuts.   At the same time its aesthetic was decidedly Modernist.  

The white-line method essentially turned the Japanese approach inside-out.   In this new technique the artist carved channels into a single block to segregate areas of color, leaving much of the surface uncut, thus allowing for the use of a soft wood such as pine.   The artist then hand-painted the block, often a section at a time, for printing.  While this made the inking process complex, it simplified the registration of the sheet through the course of the printing, and eliminated the need to carve a key block plus individual blocks for each color.   The artist need only gouge the appropriate groves into a single block:  an elegant way of simplifying the carving process, seemingly abounding with Yankee ingenuity. 

Blanche Lazzell (American, 1878-1956),
Studio in Winter, color woodcut on paper.
Sold for $9,400.

Exemplified in its simplest form by works such as Blanche Lazzell’s Studio in Winter, the white-line style created a flattened simplification of forms into shapes.  The contours of objects became secondary to the arrangement of saturated color, akin to the creation of color facets.  This new technique lent itself to a new visual vocabulary:  the emergence of American Modernism which arose from the European styles of Fauvism and Cubism.    

Early 20th century American woodcut artists reestablished the art market’s interest in woodcuts, both in America. A similar trend occurred concurrently in Europe.  This led to the adoption of the technique by numerous Modernist movements, including the German Expressionists and the Bauhaus artists.  This in turn opened the door to artists working in woodcut in the late 20th century to experiment with new approaches.  Techniques and styles as diverse as Helen Frankenthaler, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Alex Katz, Sol LeWitt, and Jim Dine have firmly re-established the American interest in woodcut for future generations. 

Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928-2011), Tales of Genji III, 1998,
color woodcut with pochoir on gray TGL handmade paper.
Sold for $61,500
Jim Dine (American, b. 1935), To the Lake, 1998,
color woodcut on heavy cream wove paper.
Sold for $7,380

[i] While woodcut nearly died out in the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, in the East, and especially in Japan, woodcut remained a vitally important technique.

[ii] For more information regarding Dow’s influence on American Modernism see Expressionism in Regionalist Prints.


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The Prints of Pop

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