Sunday, January 2, 2011

Process, materials, and aesthetics: woodblocks by Otto Eckmann

Otto Eckmann was one of the most important figures in the Judgendstil (German Art Nouveau) art movement. Born in Hamburg in 1865, Otto Eckmann studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg, and then in Nuremberg, before entering the Munich Academy of Fine Art in 1885. In the end it was to be the arts and crafts element of his training that predominated. After initial success as a painter in the Symbolist style, in 1894 Otto Eckmann renounced oil painting and auctioned off his canvases. From this point he concentrated on graphics (particularly woodcuts) and on the design of tapestries, stained glass, furniture, fabrics, and ceramics. Otto Eckmann was also a pioneering typographer and type designer, and his Jugendstil typefaces Eckmann and Fette Eckmann are still in use today. Eckmann's type design was influenced by Japanese script, just as his woodcuts show the strong influence of Japanese art. Otto Eckmann was a major contributor to the two most important Art Nouveau revues published in Germany, Pan and Jugend. He died in 1902.

Otto Eckmann, Schwertlilien
Colour woodcut, 1895

In many ways, the career of Otto Eckmann can be seen as pivotal in the democratization of art. This is true both in the way he blurred the distinction between fine and decorative arts, and in the way he renounced oil painting, which was geared to an art market of the rich and powerful, for popular and commercial art forms that reached as wide an audience as possible.


Otto Eckmann, Nachtreiher
Colour woodcut, 1896


The extent to which craft decisions influenced artistic outcomes in his work can be seen in my two colour woodblock prints. Both were published by Pan, and both were printed by Gieseke und Devrient in Leipzig. Although both are intended to be independent graphic images, I could easily imagine either of them being put to commercial use: Schwertlilien as a repeat image on a textile, for instance, or Nachtreiher as a motif on ceramics. And in each case decisions about processes and materials have decisively influenced the aesthetics of the final print. Schwertlilien (Irises), with its sharp outlines and bold contrasts between the black and yellow of the flowers, the grey of their leaves, and the uninked background, has been printed on cream wove paper. The creaminess softens the image and prevents it from being stark and challenging, while the robust thickness and open texture of the paper give an organic solidity to the print. By contrast, the ethereal Nachtreiher (Night herons), is printed on delicate, wafer-thin china paper, which is then floated onto a wove backing sheet. The resulting print has a dreamlike quality, as if the herons are conferring on some matter of mystical importance. This is quite at odds with the immediate physicality of the irises, which feel as if you could reach out and pluck them from the page.

10 comments:

Jane Librizzi said...

There's something very satisfying about 'Night Herons.' Perhaps it's the unexpected red hues used for the setting. The name sounds romantic for this short, chubby, stubby-legged trio.

Neil said...

It's a lovely composition, I think, and the colouring manages to be both vivid and subdued, if that's possible. I also like the way he hides his monogram as a reflection, centrally at the bottom of the image, below the middle bird. Night herons is the literal translation, perhaps someone with better German than me can give us a better one.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Interesting too how the two prints are framed so differently, the Night Herons neatly lined up within the rectangle, the irises breaking out all over the place. I think these different approaches are well fitted to the subjects - the birds self-contained, almost coiled, as herons are before they spring into action yo spear a fish or take off in flight, the irises rich with their lavish petals and long leaves.

k.r.h.voigt said...

Neil,

"Nightherons" is the perfect translation for the German term "Nachtreiher". Even if both names sound somewhat romantic, as one reader has pointed out, they are ornithologically correct (in both languages), as a species with that name really exists. I have seen this print with the subtitle "Philosophen" ("philosophers"), so it was obviously intended by Eckmann to make the birds appear as if they were discussing some matter of great importance. I think this is one of Eckmann's most striking images, it is full of intersting details, such as the autumn foliage at the top. And is the heron on the right relieving himself? The print is very witty and stunning at the same time for its virtuous display of colour and line.
I think your discussion of the effect of different materials used by Eckmann is very interesting and enlightening.

Klaus

Neil said...

Philip - The two pieces are so very different - the irises so vigorous and expressive, the herons so subtle and reflective.

Neil said...

Klaus - Thank you so much for this helpful comment. Because I never studied German - only Anglo-Saxon - I am always worried that my interpretation of German may be wrong. I had not noticed the subtle drip from the right-hand heron, but I am sure that you are right! As for the subtitle The Philosophers, I wonder if this is something Eckmann envisaged, or simply a title added to the print by its viewers? In either case, your words hold true.

Jane Librizzi said...

Although the 'Night Herons' appeared in Pan, the irises point toward all those decorative borders that Eckmann would soon be doing for Jugend magazine. His inventive combinations of text and images have inspired generations of artists who have no idea who Eckmann was - now that's influence.

Roxana said...

i received a Hiroshige album as a gift for Christmas and going through it now i can easily imagine those Nachtreiher being a part of that book, amazing...

Happy and wonderful New Year for you and your dear ones, Neil!

k.r.h.voigt said...

Jane,
I was just thinking the same thing this afternoon, especially if you take into consideration his revolutionary developments as a typographer! We happen to have an exhibition on Jugendstil in Munich here at the moment, and they show some of Eckmann's works there, among others his tapestry "Fünf Schwäne" (Five Swans), which is gorgeous (and very big, whereas the "Nightherons" are surprisingly small). It's a pity Eckmann died so young. I'm sure he would have had some more surprises for us all if he had lived a decade or so longer!

Klaus

Neil said...

Hiroshige - yes, Roxana - I have a beautiful book of pages from his sketchbooks, and this could certainly fit in there.

Jane and Klaus - the early death of Eckmann is one of those unknowns - would he have developed and flourished, or had he already achieved what he was meant to achieve? There's no way of knowing. But he does seem to me to be a very 1890s kind of guy. So maybe his influence on others is his true achievement.