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AOTW #7: From Sōsaku-hanga to German Expressionism: The *groovy* history of Woodcut Printing.

May 14, 2018

Sometimes perceived as a peripheral art form, woodcut printing has, in fact, played an important role in some of the most major artistic movements of the 20th century, including the German Expressionist movement, led by our Artist of the Week: Ernst Kirchner.


This week at PTC, we did print making with the kids at the Weisensee shelter. For our workshop we used lino, which made the carving process easier and much more safe! Traditionally, however, print making, otherwise known as "xylography", which originated in Asia during the Han Dynasty (220 A.D), is made using wood. 


For millennia, woodcut printing was used primarily for publishing purposes, and not as a form of art. European woodblock print-making came over from Asia around the 13th century, and was also used as a technique for printing text and illustrations for publication, one of the earliest examples of which is the "Madonna del Fuoco" (The Fire Madonna)


Pre-20th century, both in the East and West, woodcut printing was normally divided into specialized areas- the design, the carving, and the printing- done separately by different craftsmen. This process is known in Japan as the ukiyo-e collaborative system, or the hanmoto system, made famous by artists such as Katsushika Hokusai.


(Katsushika Hokusai, 'The Wave', image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)


In 20th century Japan, an artistic counter-culture emerged called the Sōsaku-hanga, which rejected the ukiyo-e system in favour of allowing the artist total creative autonomy over their work. This creative print movement was part of a larger literary and artistic movement for freedom and self-expression, which found it's voice in writings such as Takamura Kōtarō's "Green Sun", which defiantly urged artists to fully express themselves.


"Even if two or three artists should paint a "green sun", I would never criticize them for I myself may see a green sun."  - Takamura Kōtarō


(Haku Maki, 'Swim', via Aspire Auctions)


The Sōsaku-hanga movement arose as an answering cry, with works like, 'The Fisherman', a print made by artist, Kanae Yamamoto (1882–1946), who designed (自画 jiga), carved (自刻 jikoku), and printed it (自刷 jizuri) on his own.


Whilst the Sōsaku-hanga movement struggled to gain traction in pre-war Japan, post-war it flourished and became recognised as the natural heir to the ukiyo-e tradition. By the mid-century, the Japanese creative print movement was in full swing, with artists such as Maki Haku and Un-ichi Hiratsuka gaining international recognition. It also helped to bolster Japan's struggling post-war economy, with Japanese prints becoming very popular during the American Occupation.

(Un-ichi Hiratsuka, 'Steps of Jakko-in Temple, Kyoto'

(1960), via Collections Database)

As you can see from these two examples of Maki Haku and Un-ichi Hiratsuka's work, creative printing has potential for diverse expression. Maki Haku's work is strikingly abstract, his work characterized by it's simplicity and poetic meaning. Meanwhile, Un-ichi Hiratsuka's work is veering more towards impressionism, with it's intricate detail and use of perspective. 


As the Japanese print movement continued to expand, it began to influence Western art, and vice versa. The Japanese printing style was used as inspiration by many notable artists, including Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and became so ubiquotious that in the 1870's, Phillipe Berty dubbed the trend "Le Japonisme". It also influenced the later German Expressionists of the early 20th century, including our Artist of the Week, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner!


Founded in Dresden, 1905, a group of four German artists, led by Kirchner, formed 'Die Brücke' (The Bridge), widely recognised as the progenitor of the German Expressionist movement.


Their name, 'the bridge' signifies the essence of their ideology- a move back to the simpler, less pretentious forms of traditional German art (such as woodwork), combined with the avant-guarde colours and subject matter of expressionist artists, such as Matisse, forming a 'bridge' between past and present. This was in defiance of the social restrictions of the current bourgeoisie, and a way of asserting their rejection of societal norms in favour of more individualistic values and modes of expression.


"Everyone who reproduces, directly and without illusion, whatever he senses the urge to create, belongs to us" - Ernst Kirchner


As well as woodwork, Kirchner was a prolific painter and sculptor, his artwork known for its unsettling effects of psychological tension and eroticism. During the early years of Die Brücke, the group and its affiliates enjoyed a carefree bohemian lifestyle, spending much of their time hosting group life-drawing sessions and nude summer parties at the lakes surrounding Dresden.


His print, 'Mit Schilf werfende Badende' (Bathers Throwing Reeds'), really captures the youthful optimism of Die Brücke, and featured in the fifth annual portfolio of artwork distributed by the group to their friends and supporters, as a way of sharing their art without the need for intermediaries.  Among Kirchner's other works, was 'Tänzerin mit gehobenem Rock' (Dancer with raised skirt), and 'Drei Badende an den Moritzburger Seen' (Three bathers at the Moritzburg lakes).


(Kirchner, 'Bathers Throwing Reeds' (1910), via MoMA)


Throughout Kirchner's work during this period is a sense of liberation, of connection to nature and to the human body. His woodcuts have a real energy, and sharp contrast of edge and texture, creating a severey angular style, favoured by Die Brücke during their later years.


After Die Brücke disbanded in 1913, Kirchner moved to Berlin where he developed an interest in more urban subject matter, painting a large collection "Straßenszenen" (street scenes), in which streetwalkers feature as his central muses. 

 (Kirchner, 'Five Cocottes' (1913), via Pinterest)


At the outbreak of WW1, Kirchner volunteered for service, but suffered a severe mental breakdown and was discharged. What followed was a disjointed period for Kirchner, who was admitted to a number of sanatoriums over the next few years for mental health reasons, including depression and alcoholism. Throughout his convalescence he continued to paint, developing a much darker and more abstract style, which prompted Eberhard Grisebach to remark, "... a great sadness was present in all of them [his artwork]".


In 1919, Kirchner moved to Davos, Switzerland, where he had begun to visit regularly for the past few years. As his health gradually improved, so too did his prosperity, and Kirchner enjoyed a number of high profile exhibitions and increased fame. He met the dancer, Nina Hard, in 1921 who became an important model for Kirchner and featured in many of his works.


(Ernst Kirchner, 'Plakat Nina Hard' (1921), via LACMA)