The Royal Academy of Arts presents Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna. These high-quality chiaroscuro woodcut prints were highly prized in the 16th century and 21st century collectors continue to seek them.
Introducing the exhibition, artist and collector Georg Baselitz told us how his collection started. “Some time ago, in Florence, I discovered the chiaroscuro woodcut. I found them so impressive that I’ve been collecting these woodcuts ever since. I started my own collection on a very small budget so I always knew I had to compete with museums such as the Albertina.”
Baselitz explained that he “often feel[s] primarily like an archeologist who wants to excavate hidden treasures. Hidden treasures, like these, you would normally find in the British Museum or the Albertina, put away in basements or in drawers. I think, if an artist like me discovers them, they take on a completely different meaning in society.”
Making a Chiaroscuro Woodcut Print
The technique uses two or more woodcut blocks. One has the basic line drawing, and the other blocks apply colour tones and white highlights.
The artist traces or draws the designs in reverse, on to the line or ‘key’ block. They cut away any area that they aren’t printing, so that all that is left are the contours and hatchings of the scene in relief. The artist prints the lightest tone, with the highlights, first; producing the highlights by cutting away wood from the lightest tone block. The ink doesn’t touch the carved-out parts so the white paper ground shows, thus creating the highlights. Additional blocks add middle tones and shadows to the image. Used last, the line block, usually inked in black, adds the outlines.
Hans Burgkmair the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Elder made the earliest known woodcuts around the turn of the sixteenth century. The debate about who first used the technique continues. Cranach changed the dates on some of his works in an attempt to claim ownership, but the earliest-known pieces are Burgkmair’s St George and the Dragon and the Emperor Maximilian on Horseback, both dated 1508.
Sixteenth Century Printmaking Revolution
In the early 1500s, technical advances and aesthetic factors came together just as artists and printers were experimenting with new print methods. The chiaroscuro woodcut technique revolutionised printmaking, allowing fine gradations of tone and shape and bringing wonderful three-dimensional drama to the medium.
Mechanically-produced colour printing had arrived. Coloured prints existed before this, but artists usually colored these by hand. The method led to a revolution in both the art world and the wider public’s relationship with art.
Woodcut colour printing helped the rapid circulation of ideas, information and images and led to increased levels of literacy and education. As well as being valuable teaching aids, mass-production of coloured prints also met the demand for high-quality images in the well-established book publishing industry.
Many artisans reproduced existing works by some of the finest artists such as Parmigianino, Raphael and Titian. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a very well-known example. Coveted by connoisseurs for their technical brilliance and visual impact, high-quality reproductions of drawings and paintings became much sought after items.
Arturo Galansino on the Historic Implications of Chiaroscuro Woodcut Printing
Curator and art historian Arturo Galansino tells us: The historic implications of the invention are very important because collectors, scholars, artists, were able to have copies of works. These coloured prints looked almost exactly like wash drawings or water colours. So they had a really clear example of what an original work looked like thanks to these prints.
Decoded Past asked, “When you were doing the research did you discover anything that really surprised you?” Arturo Galansino tells us, “I am not a print expert, and I was even less of an expert when I started working on this show. I was shocked because I discovered that I liked it a lot, that they [chiaroscuro woodcuts] are beautiful. Like many art historians I was a little bit snobbish about prints. We prefer to go and look at drawings and paintings… what we call unique things.
But these prints which are not unique, actually in a sense they are unique, because each copy is different… the shades, the different phases of the printmaking. So I started to appreciate this media… it is very fascinating and actually it was really modern. I completely changed my mind when I understood that this was the modernity of the time.”
Decoded Past: “Ugo da Carpi’s Archimedes fascinates me. It is so like a drawing. Can you tell me more about it?”
Arturo Galansino: “It’s incredible… If I find a print like that in a file full of drawings by Raphael and his school, I would have some problem deciding if it is a print. It really looks like a drawing. All these Italian prints really look like drawings. It’s incredible, shocking, how close they are in terms of texture, colour, and so on.”
The Royal Academy Exhibition
The exhibit, Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, is in The Sackler Wing of Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts from 15th March to 8th June 2014.© Copyright 2014 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past