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Woodcuts have been made for over 500 years. At one time, at the end of the 19th Century, it was considered a poor man’s art form by the uninformed observer. If you have ever seen one of Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts by this great 15th Century German master engraver and printer you will quickly change your mind, I hope. The entire Renaissance period was rich with artists working in this medium all over Europe.  A famous woodcut titled The Kiss was made by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch around the turn of the 20th Century.

What is the definition of a woodcut?

Simply explained by Theodore B. Donson in his classic 1977 work Prints and the Print Market : “woodcuts, wood engravings, linoleum cuts (lino cuts) result from a printing surface prepared in relief. The master image is drawn on the surface of the matrix, and the print maker then slices or chisels away the unmarked areas,leaving a raised surface (relief) design to receive a coat of printing ink.”

img032img033 The glossary in the back of the seminal work Prints of the Twentieth Century : A History  by Riva Castleman (1976 Museum of Modern Art, New York) has the following definition: “relief technique –  the image is printed from the portion of a block of rigid material that remains above the cut-out area or from materials added to a flat surface. Relief prints other than wood cut and linoleum cut utilize cut pieces of card board or paper pasted in a low relief image, plastic glue hardened into shapes, cast objects and other forms of relief. Printing is done by rubbing the verso of the paper placed on the inked surface of the block or by running the paper and block though a press. A woodcut is a relief print made from a plank of wood usually cut on the straight grain from which areas meant to remain un-inked are cut away with a gouge or sharp knife.” So far so good the definitions are similarly explained.

In France at the end of the 19th Century, we saw the woodcut being used as book illustrations by many Fauve painters like Derain, Dufy, De Vlaminck and the same happened almost simultaneously in Germany and other European countries. In Germany, Avant garde artists, also called Expressionists, of the Die Bruecke Group (founded in 1905) from Dresden and the Blaue Reiter Group from Munich (founded in 1911) privileged the newly discovered  lowly woodcut.

In Belgium, Frans Masereel (1889-1972) became the best known Belgian woodcut artist and one of the first to create entire wordless graphic novels with woodcuts only. One of them is The City. In America, an older generation artist, Arthur Wesley Dow had created woodcuts in an Arts and Craft style. Others working in this medium were Lynd Ward who created another wordless novel titled God’s Man. In the early 1930’s, there was a group of Chicago artists who made a woodcut portfolio in order to support and help fund Jewish emigration to Siberian Russia, where a semi-independent territory Biro-Bidjan had been created by Lenin in the late 1920’s. Stalin used this territory to promote solving what was then seen as the “Jewish Problem” in Russia. An excellent link to this forgotten effort by these wonderful artists you will find here.

One of the greatest artists of the German Expressionist period was the Russian Wassily Kandinsky who made a book in 1912 consisting of woodcuts called “Klaenge” (sounds) illustrating his own poetry. It is considered one of the 20th Century’s seminal artist books, a true milestone. But there were many painters who made woodcuts: Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, Kaethe Kollwitz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Conrad Felixmueller and Lyonel Feiniger to name just some of the better known Expressionists. This period lasted until the early 1930’s.

One of these once short lived overlooked groups of artists was the so-called Pathetiker (the sorrow ones) stemming from the Greek word Pathos. The German language phrase was first used by the author Stefan Zweig in his work. The group, as such, lasted only until 1920.

Three artists made up the group: Jakob Steinhardt (1887-1968), Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966) and Richard Janthur (1883-1966). The best known of the group undoubtedly today is Ludwig Meidner known for his emotional apocalyptic paintings, the foreboding sign of what was to come in Germany’s future. Jakob Steinhardt became the master woodcut artist of these three painters, showing early his work at the Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin.

img488img493One of the greatest collections of Expressionist Art to come to auction was the Sotheby sale in the year 2000 of the prestigious American Marvin and Janet Fishman Sale that had simply some of the very best works of this important period.  Here are some early works (drawings) from that Sotheby sale.

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img491I recently found a very interesting volume, a catalog raisonne on the woodcuts by Steinhardt, written by one of his foremost American collectors, Leon Kolb and the art critic Haim Gamzu. It contains a lot of details about the life of Steinhardt who had emigrated to Israel in the mid-thirties. For many years, Steinhardt taught at the Bezalel Academy in Israel where he taught, i.e. Jacob Pins the art of wood print making. For some reason this catalog is not included in the list of references used in the Sotheby’s sale as we gather from the above page.

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Leafing through the catalog, I can understand why he was considered one of the best wood block artists of that period. It was the reason for writing this entire post.

These woodcuts have little in common with those of the Belgian woodcut artist Frits Masereel, but are much closer to other German Jewish artists. The woodblocks shown here echo a lost culture, in this case lost some 20 years after his triumphant German days, with the exodus of many Jewish artists and Steinhardt’s emigration to Israel.

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The Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, Germany recently showed work by the group in an exhibition called Die Pathetiker with works from their collection. Steinhardt’s work from the 50’s and 60’s loses nothing in importance. The themes of his work had changed. Landscapes became more important in his oeuvre, and the strong emotional expressions found in his portraits still convey his love for his fellow countrymen.

Woodblock prints (a partial list) by Steinhardt can be found in the following public collections: National Gallery, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Museum, New York; Brooklyn Museum,NY; New York Public Library; San Francisco Museum of Art; Fogg Art Museum, Boston; National Gallery, Berlin; Bezalel Museum, Jerusalem; Museum Stettin, as well as in many private collections.

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