Joslyn Art Museum opens Wood, an exhibition celebrating the history and unique characteristics of the woodblock print. The exhibition brims with no less than 80 prints, blocks, and books from the Museum’s collection and private lenders — most on public view for the first time. Wood spans an incredible 550 years of printmaking, from a half-page, hand-colored woodcut from the life of Saint John (from the Apocalypse Blockbook, ca. 1460) and 15th century works by the great German printmaker Albrecht Dürer, his teacher, Michael Wolgemut, and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, to contemporary works by Americans Brett Anderson, Karen Kunc, and Jay Bolotin. Dozens of artists from the United States and European nations, as well as Japan, Holland, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, are represented. The Wood exhibition inaugurates a series of three annual exhibitions — Wood, Metal, and Stone — highlighting the history and aesthetics of woodblock prints, intaglio, and lithographs. Wood will remain on view through May 24 in Joslyn Art Museum’s print gallery.
About Woodblock Prints - It is impossible to say exactly what turned late medieval minds toward the use of the woodblock to create multiple printed images. The rise of cities and towns, a populace with means and desire, previous use of the method to ornament textiles, new technologies, and readily available paper all contributed to the block as disseminator of images. Once realized, its uses multiplied exponentially. Religious communities provided images of devotion even as carvers in the secular world produced playing cards. The printing press increased the block’s importance, catering to an expanding audience clamoring for illustrated religious, classical, and scientific texts.
The woodblock, the first source of the multiple in the modern world, is prepared as a relief matrix, which means the areas to show 'white' are cut away along the grain of the wood with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show 'black' at the original surface level. It is only necessary to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print. The content prints in reverse as a mirror-image, a further complication when text is involved. For color printing, multiple blocks are used, each for one color, although overprinting two colors may produce further colors on the print. Multiple colors can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks. Today, although commercially long supplanted by other media, the rich history and unique aesthetic character of the woodblock print continues to attract artists, scholars, and the general public.
Wood is intended to serve as both a primer on the woodblock printing technique and a meditation on the great variety of subjects and techniques represented. The exhibition is divided thematically into three broad “ABCs”:
• "Aesthetics of the Block" focuses on the woodblock’s potential for graphic power and expressive intensity, exploring the artistic choices made to realize its “legibility." Emphasis is placed on the inherent characteristics of the material itself — the incorporation of the wood grain into an image, wood’s unique absorption and release of ink, and its sculptural potential and immediacy.
• "The Book and the Block" explores the block’s 600 year link to the written word, from early devotional and didactic prints to the revolution of wood engraving in the 18th century and its broad use in the 19th century. While the bond between image and text often was used for commercial purposes, it has also consistently provided artists with the creative challenge of realizing narrative in original and stimulating new forms.
• "Color and the Block" examines the block as a superb vehicle for broad pure fields of color, the early use of applied color, and the development of the color woodcut as a luxury object. The earliest work in the exhibition (ca. 1460) is, in fact, a brilliant color woodcut.
Highlights of the Exhibition
Many of the printmakers featured in the exhibition are some of the world’s most renowned woodblock artists. In addition to the great German printmakers of the 15th century, others of particular note include:
• John Dickson Batten (English, 1860–1932), recognized as one of the premier Victorian illustrators of folk and fairy tales but seldom acknowledged for his contributions to the introduction of Japanese color woodcut technique
• Émile Bernard (French, 1868–1839), represented by an illustration for The Odyssey, a rare and exquisite print displaying his hallmark Post-Impressionist cloisonnism (the flattening of forms into cells confined by heavy line)
• Fritz Eichenberg (American, born Germany, 1901–1990), a political cartoonist who fled Germany after lampooning Hitler, represented by a tour-de-force of the engraver’s art, Heathcliff Under the Tree from Wuthering Heights — an iconic image from the war years
• Robert Gibbings (British, 1889–1958), England’s great pioneer of the wood engraving revival • Eric Gill (1882–1940), England’s most famous wood engraver of the 1920s and 1930s
• American Rockwell Kent (1882–1971), whose technically unequaled wood engravings of a triumphant sailor, titled Homeport, and an angel with a backbone of stars far above a fragile ship adrift in the ocean, titled Godspeed, combine the graphic strength of a woodcut with the fine line of wood engraving (both 1931, the year Joslyn Art Museum opened to the public)
• Nebraska printmaker Karen Kunc, whose two works in the exhibition, The Wanting Pool and Amassing Blue (both 2007), are presented with the exciting and educational addition of the ink-stained blocks she used to create The Wanting Pool
• Claire Leighton (American, born England, 1898–1989), whose prints rely on dramatic contrasts of black and white. The exhibition includes her wood engraving Apple Picking from The Farmer’s Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry (1933) along with a first edition printed book, signed by Leighton
• Thomas Nast (American, born Bavaria [Germany], 1840–1902), America’s most famous cartoonist, is represented by a satire engraved in 1875 for Harper’s Weekly defending Ulysses S. Grant’s courageous attempt to protect black civil rights and end violence after the Reconstruction
• Chiura Obata (1885–1975), an American born and trained as an artist in Japan, whose 1930 Life and Death, Porcupine Flat took over 100 inkings of an unknown number of blocks to achieve its deeply luminous colors • Walter Williams (b. 1920), an African-American from Brooklyn who lives and works in Denmark and presents energetic prints of African-American children playing in fields of flowers and butterflies. The stories behind the prints in the Wood exhibition are as fascinating as the images themselves. Other special highlights, selected by Penelope Smith, Joslyn’s assistant curator of prints and drawings:
• Emma Bormann (Austrian, 1887–1974), Vienna, Maria am Gestade (St. Mary on the Strand), ca. 1925 Bormann was a consummate cutter who relied not on continuous line, but varied strokes detailing the play of light. In Vienna, Maria am Gestade (St. Mary on the Strand), delicate dots stipple the age-darkened façade of Vienna’s oldest cathedral, while concentric gouges ring its soaring spires, as if a spiritual force guards those in its shadow.
• Howard Cook (American, 1901–1980), Railroad Sleeping, 1926 - Sitting at night in a deserted depot, Cook supposedly cut this image directly onto the block by moonlight. The artist’s long vertical strokes maintain not only a sense of the railroad’s nature, but his own yearning to jump a train and be gone.
• Gustav Vigeland (Norwegian, 1869–1943), a sculptor rivaling Rodin, is little known outside Norway. In return for state support, his work was donated to the city of Oslo. Only his dynamic woodcuts are seen outside his homeland. In the exhibition are images of Vigeland’s remembered youth — men, women, and children, fishing and with horses — carved by the artist on rectangular bread boards in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
• Three beautifully designed children’s books printed with wood engravings — Walter Crane (English, 1845–1915) and Edmund Evans’ (English, 1826–1905) The Baby’s Own Aesop (1887; presented edition: 1900), Charles Buckles Falls’ (American 1874–1960) ABC Book (1923, first edition); and Boris Artzybasheff’s (American, born Russia, 1899–1965) Seven Simeons: A Russian Tale (1937, first edition) — represent the aestheticism of the Arts and Crafts Movement and its demand that children’s books not only entertain but enlighten artistically. These books will be presented open in the exhibition, with the pages of each turned once weekly for a new view upon repeat visits.
• Leo Meissner (American, 1895–1977) Small World, 1930 - As the art designer for Charm, a sophisticated periodical billed as “the magazine for women who work,” Meissner was accustomed to observing life in lower Manhattan. This print captures a Scottie dog keeping pace with the striding legs of the pedestrians around him on the streets of New York City.
• Paul Landacre (American, 1893–1963), Growing Corn, 1938 - Landacre was considered America’s greatest wood engraver by such contemporaries as Rockwell Kent. A member of the Los Angeles art scene which included such luminaries as Edward Weston, he was committed to a modernist approach. With its virtuoso straight strokes and elegantly curving cuts, Growing Corn astounded his contemporaries as it does viewers today. In 1949 it was selected to represent American wood engraving at the prestigious Venice Biennale.
• No American artist was a more profound moral force in the 20th century than Leonard Baskin (American, 1922–2000). Among the first to use large plywood blocks, he employed them as a means to compound the impact of his form. His 1969 woodcut Agonized causes the viewer to empathize with the pain he experiences and in so doing experience pity, that virtue by which humanity is civilized.
• Monica Poole (English, 1921–2003), Edge of Wood, 1975 (edition of 75) - Poole spent a solitary life exploring her native Kent and engraving masses of fine line on hard boxwood blocks which might take half a year to complete. Her dramatic Edge of Wood shows dark trees at a forest border
• Presented side by side in the exhibition are Martin Puryear’s (American, born 1941) Dark Loop (1982) and Yvonne Helene Jacquette’s (American, born 1934) Bridges Over Cuyahoga River, Cleveland (1999). The blackness of the uncut block invites spontaneity from minimalist sculptor Martin Puryear and Yvonne Jacquette, a printmaker known for her aerial views.
• Jay Bolotin (American, contemporary), printers: Gary Day and the UNO Print Workshop, Tea Cup Ride (2006) Bolotin, a versatile printmaker, musician, and sculptor, combines traditional color woodcut and lithography in this new addition to the on-going narrative of Jack, a “jackleg” or self-taught carpenter experiencing the world as a sort of artistic everyman. Visitors may be familiar with Bolotin’s Jack. In 2006, Joslyn Art Museum presented the exhibition Jay Bolotin: The Jackleg Testament.