Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Xylography is the art of woodcut wherein the artist takes a block of wood and carves out the parts of the design that will not be inked. This obviously requires an ability to foresee a thing in reverse. It takes a special kind of person to be able to create an image in its negative state. (Think of the negative of a photograph. My favorite such image is from Hitchcock's Rear Window.

During the opening montage, after the camera scans the neighboring apartments outside of Jeffries' window, it returns to sweep over the interior of his apartment, giving us non-verbal insight into the man behind the camera. At one point, we see a photographic negative of a woman before then being shown the cover of the fashion magazine on which the image was memorialized.)

1933 Indy Winner, Louis Meyer, film negative
Wood engraving is quite an ancient printmaking technique. Originating in China and Egypt in the early centuries A.D., woodcut made its way along trade and knowledge routes to Europe where it was used to print upon textiles. One of Europe's first paper mills was built in Xativa, Spain (now known as Jativa or St. Felipe de Javita in the ancient city of Valencia) in 1151. As this was under the time of the Muslim conquest of Spain, it follows that Arabs brought paper-making to Europe. In fact, the word 'ream' has its origins in the Arabic word, rizmah meaning "a bundle."

Still, because of paper's costliness, its fragility, and its associations with the Arabic world, it wasn't mass produced in a way as to enable woodcutting to truly develop until the 1400's, coinciding with the advent of the printing press. Interestingly, paper-making has a strong historical association with the clandestine and transgressive. The Italian feudal family, the Fabriano's, established a monopoly over paper-making in 1436 and first fined those caught making paper, then later banished them from the city limits and confiscated all of their property and assets. This will come into play again in a moment.

When paper finally became more available and less insubordinate, there followed an explosion of woodcuts -- of both religious and everyday scenes. Quality dropped as popularity rose until the Wolgemut family in Germany refined the art in their workshop in Nuremburg. At the time, Nuremburg was the hub of book publishing in Germany. The Wolgemut workshop was commissioned to engrave many a book illustration, including the Nuremburg Chronicle in 1491.

Page from Nuremburg Chronicle, 1491, featuring Constantinople, woodcut with hand coloring
This illustrated world history sophisticatedly integrated text and image, which together often did not present a unified message to the reader. For example, an early page in the book contains text presenting and then discounting Greek creation theories. Yet, the image on this page subversively critiques this critique by centering the imagery around the Greek letters for hyle, a concept that there is some consistent matter or energy underlying the materiality of all things. (Those Greeks were ahead of their time -- think atoms or the potential energy from the Big Bang being stored and released in later events...) The book is most famous, though, for its cityscapes which lost accuracy and verisimilitude the further the locations depicted were from Europe.

Turkey (looking like a medieval German city), from Nuremburg Chronicle
It should come as no surprise that out of the Wolgemut workshop came that apocalyptic and melancholic woodcutting master, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

Durer, Knight, Death, and Devil, 1513

Haunted by a dark take on life and an interest in the spirit within matter, Dürer (and Grünewald though more for his paintings) would later become an important inspiration for the 20th century German Expressionist movement.
"Why has God given me such magnificent talent? It is a curse as well as a great blessing."
"As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art." (Dürer)
And if it is simplicity that is sought, then it makes sense to turn to xylography. For what could be a more honest material than wood. Woodcut allows only the most essential marks, and requires a commitment to the material as one wrong cut will ruin the entire piece. Further, there is a sense of what is evident by what is cut away... the presence in absence:

Absence (by Luljeta Lleshanaku)

The moon
nicotine of a kiss...

A sideways glance
like the mast of a pirate ship
beyond a distant island
Albrecht Durer, St. Jerome in His Study, 1514
And in the persistence of wood, in its honesty and practicality, in its symbolic quality as rebirth, regeneration, the tradition of woodcutting has come to be deeply intertwined with German national identity. In 1936, as Germany marched towards perhaps its ugliest and darkest national moment, Wilhelm Waetzoldt wrote that Dürer's Knight, Death, and Devil:
...does not speak equally loud and clear to all times and all persons. Dürer's high thinking epoch perceived the triumphant organ sound of print. Fainthearted generations on the other hand heart more the harmonies of memento mori. Heroic souls love this engraving as Nietzsche did and as Adolf Hitler does today. They love it because it personifies victory. It is of course true that death will one day conquer us all, but is is equally true that a heroic man wins a moral victory over death. This is the eternal message of this print, the spiritual bond that unites Dürer's time and ours. Dürer's clarion call sounds to us across the centuries and finds once more an echo in our German hearts.
Thus, the role of the past becomes "to justify and validate the present... The print is ascribed a transhistorical essence whose 'truth' proscribes interpretative disagreement." (Keith Moxey, "Impossible Distance: Past and Present in the Study of Dürer and Grünewald," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Dec 2004), pg.754)

Of course am I now reminded of the fantastic exhibition at the Guggenheim of late: Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936.... in which was depicted the antithetical tendency away from Expressionism's "painterly and ideological chaos... backward in time... [towards] the 'modernity of the past,' the sudden but powerful attraction that German art history exerted over practitioners in the 1920s." (Kenneth Silver, "A More Durable Self," in Chaos and Classicism (New York: Guggenheim, 2010)

But to return more directly to xylography. The Expressionists loved it for its requirement for physical labor, its physical involvement with the medium, the Germanic spirit seemingly rooted in the material, its revealing the nature of the wood -- its grain and texture -- as much as the image desired by the artist. For:
In the beginning was the woodcut... They are like folksongs and folktales in which something of the sublime awe still lingers...something of the grace that helped even the crudest craftsmen during the Middle Ages to turn out his stammering to the praise of God still floats over them; in them the clumsy outlines grow out of the wood itself....(Mannheim Kunsthalle, 1920)
Form evolves necessarily out of material; it is not projected onto a emptiness (as with paint on canvas). The image becomes part of the material, and thus part of nature. Man's agency in the world cuts into existing space and nature; the 'new man' who is to transform the world was similarly to intervene in the world through an understanding of the medium (a sensitive take on what that world was and needed... rather than forcing upon that world a misguided vision.) Whatever their motivations, the woodcuts of the Expressionists remain powerfully understated.

Lyonel Feininger, Cathedral (Kathedrale), 1919
Erich Heckel, Männerbildnis (Self-Portrait), 1918
Erich Heckel, Beim Vorselen, 1914
I mentioned that the subversive nature of woodcut and print-making would be re-introduced and here we are at that point. For Heckel's art was deemed 'denegerate' by the Nazis and in January of 1944, his studio was bombed, set ablaze, and all his blocks and plates were hopelessly demolished.

And then there are Ukiyo-e  (浮世絵 literally "pictures of the floating world"), Japanese woodcuts which depict landscapes and historical tales. Ironically, these woodcuts use the solid medium to express the very opposite sensibility -- that of the ephemeral and the impermanent.

Hiroshige II, Cherry Blossoms
Evening Snow at Edo River
Hiroshige, Reeds in the Snow with a Wild Duck
Now we reach a completely different vein of influence. For these particular Japanese woodcuts were to inspire Art Nouveau artists and others such as Van Gogh, Klimt, and Toulouse-Lautrec among others. Whistler's moonlit Nocturne series were directly inspired from Ukiyo-e woodcuts.
Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights, 1872, Tate, London

James Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea, 1871, Tate, London
Whistler hoped for these paintings to possess the lack of narrative content, the arrangement and the harmony of musical compositions.
Nocturne (by Eugene O'Neill)

The sunset gun booms out in hollow roar
Night breathes upon the waters of the bay
The river lies, a symphony in grey,
Melting in shadow on the further shore.

A sullen coal barge tugs its anchor chain
A shadow sinister, with one faint light
Flickering wanly in the dim twilight,
It lies upon the harbor like a stain.

Silence. Then through the stillness rings
The fretful echo of a seagull's scream,
As if one cried who sees within a dream
Deep rooted sorrow in the heart of things.

The cry the Sorrow knows and would complain
And impotently struggle to express --
Some secret shame, some hidden bitterness --
Yet evermore must sing the same refrain.

Silence once more. The air seems in a swoom
Beneath the heavens' thousand opening eyes
While from the far horizon's edge arise
The first faint silvery tresses of the moon.
And so the woods remain, "lovely, dark and deep." (Frost) And in our thematic xylographic moment, we live in wood, in the dark mysteries of the woods from whence the medium originates, in the simple, unpretentious honesty that it represents. For, from a single, simple block of wood echoes the memory of spirit, of fairy tales, and of sound itself. "The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach." (Henry Beston) And in these echoes, there is much to hear.

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