The artist Matthias Mansen lives not far from the Kupferstichkabinett. In the vicinity of his studio, he fishes old floorboards out of containers that have been torn out of houses on Potsdamer Strasse. He carves notch after notch into this raw material, sometimes densely packed, sometimes in loose structures. Exactly these areas remain white in the paper print. Because only the raised areas absorb the printer’s ink and transfer it to the light background: this is how the woodcut, the oldest printing process in the world, works.
Mansen’s sharp black-and-white contrasts merge into house facades only when viewed from a distance. The curators hung the head-high printing block over the corner with the mirrored paper print, like an open book: the medium clearly comments on itself.
The artist donated the complete printing blocks of his “Potsdamer Straße” series to the Kupferstichkabinett. You’ve come to the right place: The house already has a valuable stock of historical printing plates from 600 years ago. In the exhibition “Woodcut. 1400 to today” they are among the most interesting objects.
woodcut like? In their summer exhibition with around 100 works, the curatorial team will illuminate an artistic technique of which many have only a rough idea. Anyone expecting mainly expressive black and white in the Brücke style has made a mistake. The woodcut was colored from the start. Around 1400, bright tones were applied to the printed outlines with a nimble brush, as if on an assembly line. Whether it’s a card game or a devotional picture: the printing process, which was invented around 1400 in southern Germany (but has long been known in Asia), quickly advanced to become the first mass medium in Europe. The paper now available made it possible. Pictures came out cheaply and in large numbers: no longer reserved for the rich and the church alone.
Saint Christopher for all. A lucky charm and emergency helper for your pocket. A comet had been seen? A rhinoceros? Woodcuts were published as leaflets, which caused a stir. Dürer jumped on the bandwagon and recognized the artistic potential. His colleague Hans Sebald Beham designed dainty vine tendrils interspersed with nacked ice as wall decorations, masterfully designed as an endlessly repeatable repeat.
In the commercial city of Venice, too, people were on the ball. A giant view of St. Mark’s Square composed of 14 individual sheets shows the Doge climbing into his magnificent gondola and elegant contemporaries shopping for Murano glass and food. The woodcut was thus fully established as a virtuoso black-and-white technique. Fine oblique and parallel hatching provided plasticity and liveliness.
But the experimentation continued. In Italy, as in the German centers, the artists were working on printing in color. Lucas Cranach even dated his chiaroscuro woodcut of a Venus a few years back in order to be considered the inventor.
With the color woodcut, the era of laborious hand coloring was over. But two or more printing plates had to be cut, one for each shade.
In the 18th century, John Baptist Jackson took pastel nuances to extremes with up to 9 panels. His reproduction of an Italian landscape captivates with its fragrant, atmospheric magic. The contemporary artist Francesco Clemente goes one better: his watercolour-like self-portrait is printed on 22 printing blocks in 49 work steps.
Helen Frankenthaler’s “Essence Mulberry”, inspired by a mulberry tree in front of the New York printer’s studio, is artistically more convincing. The abstract expressionist processed four printing blocks from oak to plywood with a cheese slicer and electric jigsaw.
Kandinsky’s early color prints did not remain unaffected either. However, he did not cut into hard wood, but into modern linoleum. The Art Deco graphic artist Norbertine von Bresslern-Roth also used this for her enormously successful depictions of animals.
In the modern age, the Brücke artists are considered the great rediscoverers of the woodcut. Their hallmarks were brutality and ferocity. They copied this creative mode from imported indigenous art at the time of colonialism. However, the maximum of artistic radicalism in woodcuts was far from being achieved. Hans Hartung grabbed the ax to maltreat his printing block. He simply lacked the patience for finer things, as he put it on record. The aisle created in this way gapes in the night-black ground like a bright flash of light.
The current writing works by Nasan Tur, who was born in Offenbach, are more communicative. His exhibited work is called “Give and Take”. On the last day of the exhibition, new prints are to be made in a printing campaign. Even in the digital age, the archaic medium of woodcuts is still changeable – and fascinates as ever.