Thursday, March 29, 2012

The rise and fall of the Expressionist woodcut

The woodcut is the archetypal Expressionist medium - vital, energetic, powerful. One thinks of artists such as Erich Heckel, Frans Masereel, Emil Nolde, Max Beckman.

Certainly since the 1870s and the rise of Impressionism, art movements have come and gone with incredible speed. It is interesting to see how quickly the Jugendstil (German art nouveau) colour woodcuts, that make such an interesting western comment on the Japanese woodcut tradition, become overwhelmed by the new Expressionist mode - a jagged, rough-edged, almost brutal aesthetic, which nevertheless proves able to accommodate motifs as traditional as deer grazing in a landscape. All of the images in this post are taken from issues of the Viennese art revue Die Graphischen Künste. The first comes from 1910, and is I think an exceptional example of a Jugendstil woodcut. It's an incredibly strong yet subtle image, and for once I think my photograph does it justice.

Heine Rath (German, 1873-1920), Eisblumen
Woodcut, 1910

Leap across the First World War, and what do we find? A completely new world. The images are black-and-white, stark and uncompromising. Some of the artists are politically engaged, some are not, but in every case there is a rejection of decorative appeal in favour of graphic strength. I won't try to comment on each one, but simply let the images roll. It's interesting to see how the same aesthetic can be applied to the cityscape, landscape, animals, people, with such powerful results. But just as this movement took its momentum from the continental fracture of the Great War, it received its death blow from the rise of the Nazis. Faced with such horrendous ideas and actions - and the suppression of dissident artists - Expressionism had neither the vocabulary nor the means to survive.

Erwin Lang (Austrian, 1886-1962)
Turm von St. Stephan in Wien
Woodcut, 1932

Emma Bormann (1887-1974)
Aus Hollande (Godlinze)
Woodcut, 1922

Adolf Weber-Scheld (German, 1892-?)
Woodcut, 1931

Ernst Hrabal (Czech, 1886-1969)
Woodcut, 1925

Elfriede Miller-Hauenfels (Austrian, 1893-1962)
Christus auf dem Ölberg
Woodcut, 1922

I am particularly interested in the religious connotations in the two cuts above, and the one below. In a way one thinks of Expressionism as a post-religious movement of the Machine Age. But the woodcut by Hrabal shows how even the landscape could evoke religious feeling, while that of Miller-Hauenfels reimagines the torment of Christ on the Mount of Olives in twentieth-century terms. As for what is happening in the image below by Walter Clemens Schmidt - who knows?

Walter Clemens Schmidt (German, 1890-1979)
Woodcut, 1925

Robert Philippi (Austrian, 1877-1959)
Törichte Jungfrau
Woodcut, 1930

Robert Philippi, the creator of this foolish virgin, taught Egon Schiele wood engraving and etching.

Jan Rambousek (Czech, 1896-1976)
Woodcut, 1933

Note the billboard advert for the Prague football club FK Viktoria in the background.

Karl Rössing (Austrian, 1897-1987)
Einwandfrei Prozessführung
Woodcut, 1928

Johannes Wohlfarht (Austrian, 1900-1975)
Woodcut, 1933

The tone of Expressionist art - always satirical and sarcastic - became more bitter by the year, as fascist ideas first appeared then blossomed then overtook sane society. This woodcut by Johannes Wohlfarht (or Wohlfart, sources vary).Titled Procession of the blind (or, perhaps, The blind leading the blind), it is a mordant political satire for the year 1933, which saw the Nazis rise to power in Germany. Johannes Wohlfahrt was greatly influenced by the anarchist Herbert Müller-Guttenbrunn. Before the rise of the Nazis Johannes Wohlfahrt's art was mostly concerned with the plight of the downtrodden and exploited; after, he sought refuge in religion, and most of his work after 1930 is religious in nature, albeit still often with a satirical point to make.


between-the-lines said...

I've a feeling that the two versions of Wohlfahrt given are probably mis-spellings, as the word "Fahrt", meaning journey, has been spelt this way during the entire lifetime of the artist concerned, and probably several generations before that at least.

Neil said...

Yes - I have chosen to use the spelling Wohlfarht even though the journal Die Graphischen Künste uses the alternative spelling. I think it was just a mistake. It's worrying to think that every trifling mistake we make can resound down the years...

Jane Librizzi said...

I like the combination of color and neutrality in Heine Rath. Quite intriguing, it seems to me. Is this typical of his work, for it is rather unusual, when it's either one or the other for most artists.

Neil said...

Jane, I've only had two woodcuts by Heine Rath. The other, Nelken (Carnations) was an innately brighter subject, but still had a subdued quality to the colours. The few other works I can find on the internet are similarly muted.

Alizone said...

Hi Neil
I was very interested to read this article. I have inherited a woodcut by Johannes Wohlfart titled "Ruhe auf der Flucht" - it depicts the holy family resting in a wood, with a donkey in the background.
Do you know where I can find anything out about this print, or whether there may be a market for it, as I am interested in selling it.

Neil said...

Alison - I would guess your print comes from Wohlfarht's later, religious, post-Nazi period, but other than that I can't say much about it. He's a fairly obscure artist, with certainly very little about him on the web.