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A Brief History of Wood Cuts

The wood cut, the most basic relief print making process, originated in China during the ninth century. By the twelfth century, the wood cut had made its way across Asia to Europe on textiles brought to the region by way of the Silk Road.  By the fourteenth century, the wood cut was perceived as a form of popular art, as it was chiefly used to illustrate Biblical scenes for the illiterate masses throughout Europe. Albrecht Durer revolutionized the woodcut, elevating the process and aesthetic alike. The godson of the renowned printmaker Anton Koberger, Durer apprenticed under him, absorbing his deft skill with the wood cut process. Durer, however, would take this largely rudimentary approach further, creating astonishingly meticulous designs on the woodblock, which resulted in exceptional pictures appreciated for their beauty as much as for their illustrative capacity. Still, in the fifteenth century, printing processes such as engraving and etching usurped the wood cut as Europe’s primary illustrative tool and the woodcut fell into relative obscurity.

“Mankind practically raced through the last stage of a millennium that had begun after the fall of the great classical world,” writes Franz Marc in “Two Pictures,” appearing in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac. Published in 1914, facing the Great War, Der Blaue Reiter, or Blue Rider, figured as a calling to arms for Modern artists of Germanic dissent. Marc and his Blaue Reiter compatriots, such as Wassily Kandinsky, disgruntled and indeed, disgusted with modern art’s reception and appreciation in Germany, embraced so-called primitive art forms, such as Bavarian glass painting and the wood cut. Heralded as a more spiritual and transcendent art making practice, the wood cut was elevated and celebrated by printmakers such as Marc. Marc’s colored woodcuts, such as Resting Horses (1912), are spirited yet soft hybrids of classical technique and modern sensibility. Perhaps the most adroit with the woodcut was Ernst Kirchner, a key member of Die Brucke, or The Bridge. Kirchner’s woodcuts are piercingly vivid, yet remarkably truthful in their so-called primitive aesthetic. Cloaked collectively under the title German Expressionism, Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter differed, but shared a passionate commitment to finding and forming a spiritual, authentic national art that fervently expressed the feelings of their inner psyches. Die Brucke was especially pledged to reviving the woodcut, as woodcut images routinely adorned the group’s placards and texts. Emil Nolde, member of Die Brucke, relished in the wood cut’s graceful yet rigid line. Nolde’s works, such as Schiffe (1906), are poetic invocations of energetically mystical forms alive in contemporary conception.

Marc was tragically killed during battle in World War I, and Expressionist groups such as Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke would loose their urgency during the Weimar years. Kirchner would sadly commit suicide 1938, a year after the Nazi’s infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, were German Expressionism—Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke alike—would be condemned as dangerous to humanity. As such, many seminal German Expressionistic works, including wood cut blocks and prints, were mercilessly destroyed. Given their extreme rarity, wood cut prints are coveted in public and private collections alike. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ newly acquired Ludwig and Rosy Fisher Collection, assembled during the height of German Expressionism, did not fully escape the Nazi’s attempted obliteration of Modern Art. Miraculously, however, many seminal wood cuts by Kirchner and other key figures of German Expressionism did avoid destruction, thus making the Fisher Collection a sacred assembly of both the German Expressionist movement and wood cut process. Perhaps most evocative of the period is Kirchner’s Bathing Scene Under Hanging Branches (1913), a electrifying and contented glimpse into modern, ultimately malevolent German life through wood cut’s timeless, traditional aesthetic.

Leah Triplett is a Boston-based writer and critic.

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