It is easy to see why artists continue to be drawn to these prints today – whether as admirers, imitators or, in the case of Baselitz, as serious collectors. Baselitz’s passion for them, says David Ekserdjian in the exhibition catalogue, ‘lies in their directness, in the sense that nothing comes between the viewer and their creator’. Both his collection and the Albertina’s include fine and rare examples. Baselitz’s holdings feature the only known impression of a particular work by German woodcutter Erasmus Loy, who made boldly inventive images of Italianate architecture, such as Courtyard with Renaissance Architecture (c.1550). Loy’s prints were not designed for folios but were instead pasted onto wood to be used as cheap substitutes for inlaid decoration in the home. This function explains why so few have survived, and the show also includes a fine companion piece from the Albertina.
In the German style, typically, a single ‘line block’ held the entire composition and would read perfectly well as a stand-alone print. To add drama, volume and highlights, additional ‘tone blocks’ were cut, as in Hans Baldung Grien’s Witches’ Sabbath (1510), in which a collection of aged crones are seen cavorting naked beneath a tree, concocting their hellish brews and enjoying a spot of bareback goat-riding. German line blocks were often printed in black, the tone blocks supplying colour. Dürer’s famous Rhinoceros (1515) was originally created as a single-block woodcut – Dürer, in fact, never created any chiaroscuro woodcuts. The chiaroscuro version in the exhibition was actually created by the Amsterdam publisher Willem Janssen, who added tone blocks to the original Dürer blocks that he had acquired in The Hague about a century after the artist’s death, adding a new dimension to Dürer’s original line image.
Chiaroscuro prints were produced widely in the Netherlands in the second half of the 16th century, as well as in France (for reproduction purposes) and England in the 18th century. The Italians often dispensed with a line block altogether, breaking down each composition into tones cut on separate blocks, none of which would ‘read’ as a complete image without the others. Domenico Beccafumi’s ‘Apostles’ series, exemplifies this approach. Each print typically shows a standing apostle, portrayed as a bearded statesman swathed in toga-like robes, such as An Apostle (c.1540-45). Each face and body is dramatically lit down one side, while the other side recedes into darkness. The effect is as if you are looking at monumental marble sculptures, yet these are also poignant images of old age in which gnarled hands and pensive expressions speak of frail human flesh and bone.
Italian blocks were printed in a series of increasingly contrasted tones, none of which usually included black. There were overlaps between both approaches but, generally, the Germans tended more towards creating, within a line block, the effects of an intensely wrought drawing, adding tonal blocks for dramatic highlights and extra volume. The Italian prints, by contrast, inclined towards painterly, monumental qualities, combining a sense of the airiness of watercolour with the solidity of sculpture.
But, by the late 16th century, the primacy of printmaking as a creative art form was perhaps being undermined by its own commercial success. Demand for prints was, by then, so great that publishing companies began, increasingly, to emulate great artists’ works – be they paintings, sculpture or drawings – with the first purely reproductive prints. Connections between artists and printers became more tenuous. Gradually, too, as fashions changed, metal engraving and etchings became more sought after, while the woodcut’s popularity began to wane.
Questions as to whether chiaroscuro woodcuts are essentially reproductions or original works of art cannot be answered simply. In comparison to the reproduction prints that followed, chiaroscuro prints often involved a design created specifically for woodcut rather than, necessarily, an attempt to reproduce preexistent imagery. However, making careful copies of their masters’ work was an integral part of artists’ training. Printmakers, likewise, assimilated what they needed from wherever they could find it: an entire figure here, an aspect of landscape there, drapery details or, occasionally, an entire compositional group. But such appropriation was created in the spirit of furthering a tradition, to refine and develop treatments of given subjects and thus hand them down, in improved form, to posterity. Similarly, if not working alone, an artist and printmaker might join forces to combine their skills and produce a new work of art. Singly or jointly, artists and artist-printmakers undoubtedly created a wealth of original imagery as lively and diverse in subject matter as in technique. These works can now be enjoyed in this unusual and often surprising exhibition which should not be missed.
Renaissance Impressions is in The Sackler Wing of Galleries at the RA, 15 March – 8 June 2014.
Anne Desmet RA was elected a Royal Academician in 2011.