Albrecht Durer: Rhinoceros www.artcyclopedia.com
Yesterday’s post, the second entry of the review of The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilifrid Blunt, (https://gregole.com/2015/02/19/the-art-of-botanical-illustration-part-2-the-art-of-the-woodcut/) got me to thinking about book production in general right after the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, and specifically picture-book production marrying movable type and woodcuts. In hacking around the internet yesterday researching woodcut artists I was stunned by the powerful images this medium is capable.
It was partly a confluence of history that produced this artistic explosion. It was right about the time of the invention of moveable type that breakthroughs were being made in paper making as well; and you have to know that with printing coming on line, demand for good paper was increasing, fueling production of paper, prices then would start falling, better quality paper was produced…better, cheaper books… a so-called virtuous cycle.
Now artists had been making prints before 1439. Even books were done as woodcuts with the letters cut into the wood along with the pictures – laborious but faster and cheaper than hand-copied parchment; the only other alternative prior to movable type. These types of books were by necessity generally short in length. But the idea was there, and when movable type can into play it wasn’t a great innovation to marry the two.
Prior to this time, in Europe at least, it was the goldsmith who pioneered the idea of transferring a design from a solid surface to paper and it was done to record the etching of the workpiece that had transferred ownership – the goldsmith probably sold it! Anyhow, he wanted to remember what etching he did so he smeared on some ink and made an impression of the image onto a piece of paper.
Engraving on metal was part of the goldsmith‘s craft throughout the Medieval period, and the idea of printing engraved designs onto paper probably began as a method for them to record the designs on pieces they had sold. Some artists trained as painters became involved from about 1450–1460, although many engravers continued to come from a goldsmithing background. From the start, engraving was in the hands of the luxury tradesmen, unlike woodcut, where at least the cutting of the block was associated with the lower-status trades of carpentry, and perhaps sculptural wood-carving.
The first major artist to engrave was Martin Schongauer (c. 1450–1491), who worked in Southern Germany, and was also a well-known painter. His father and brother were goldsmiths, so he may well have had experience with the burin from an early age. His 116 engravings have a clear authority and beauty, and became well known in Italy as well as Northern Europe, as well as much copied by other engravers. He also further developed engraving technique, in particular refining cross-hatching to depict volume and shade in a purely linear medium.
Martin Schongauer: Woman with a wreath of oak leaveswww.wikipaintings.org
martin schongauer saint anthony tormented by demons www.keywordpicture.com
Israhel van Meckenam was an engraver from the borders of Germany and the Netherlands, who probably trained with Master ES, and ran the most productive workshop for engravings of the century between about 1465 and 1503. He produced over 600 plates, most copies of other prints, and was more sophisticated in self-presentation, signing later prints with his name and town, and producing the first print self-portrait of himself and his wife. Some plates seem to have been reworked more than once by his workshop, or produced in more than one version, and many impressions have survived, so his ability to distribute and sell his prints was evidently sophisticated. His own compositions are often very lively, and take a great interest in the secular life of his day.
We saw some of Hans Weiditz (b. 1495 d. 1537) in yesterday’s post on botanical art, but he was an accomplished engraver in many venues. Check this out:
And this one:
The master who brought woodcut to its highest technical level though was the incomparable Albrecht Dürer.
Knight Devil and Death, Albrecht Dürer, 1513
I’ve got a print of this one on my wall in my study.