Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public

By DuBruck, Edelgard E. | Fifteenth Century Studies, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public


DuBruck, Edelgard E., Fifteenth Century Studies


Parshall, Peter, and Rainer Schoch, eds. Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. 372 (9 ½ x 12 inches). 150 ill in color; 20 b/w.

This beautifully illustrated book examines the evolution of early printmaking in late-medieval Europe. Woodcut prints are explored in a broad social and economic context, as the means of their production and their utility for massdissemination are investigated. The book is essential for art historians, students, and collectors, as well as for the general reader.

In "Early Woodcuts and the Reception of the Primitive" the editors discuss printing from woodblocks in central Europe (southern Germany) by the second quarter of the fifteenth century (after the method had been practiced in Asia for centuries). Now, a large number of people were able to possess images, one generation before Johannes Gutenberg's printing from moveable type. Therefore, Origins of European Printmakingtreats mosdy German evidence.

The two basic media of relief prints were woodcuts and metal cuts (engraving); by 1470 woodcuts were used for illustrating printed books, and engraving included a high percentage of profane subjects, in color. Actually, Gutenberg was preceded by the Haarlem printer Jan Laurens Coster (c. 1370c. 1440?). A well-known published inventory of 3,200 prints was assembled later between 1515 and 1525 by Ferdinand Columbus (son of the explorer), who traveled about Europe and acquired woodcuts ; he was an encyclopedist wanting to own (indiscriminately) as many pictures as possible, mostly allegories and satires (3).

While some scholars believe that printmaking traveled from Italy to the North, the Chinese had printed from woodblocks many centuries earlier. Serious research on the history of printing did not begin until the mid-eighteenth century, with the three- volume study of Jean-Michel Papillon (1766), who revived the legendary story about the Cunio twins of Ravenna, believed to have been inventors of woodcuts in the late thirteenth century. The earliest formal analysis of a fifteenth-c. relief print was done by Franz Krismer, a librarian, and printed in Christoph von Murr's Journal (1776 - p. 5). Early woodcuts were qualitatively dismissed, however, until the nineteenth century, when the idea to establish the images' history emerged as a part of cultural patrimony in Germany. After the revolutions of 1848, early woodcuts became artifacts of pre-industrial society, a characterization lasting until the modern atavistic engagement with the primitive.

It seems as if a connection is seen nowadays relating woodcuts (and the first printed books) directly to modern high-speed presses and mass-media, including photomechanical processes (such as those used for the Elustrated London News and the Leipzig Illustrierte Leitung). In modern times, William Morris and his pre-Raphaelite friends turned to pre-Albrecht Dürer woodcuts and the suppression of perspective. To imitate the art of the medieval book, certain techniques had to be relearned and type-fronts created on the basis of Gothic prototypes. In France, a similar development took place before 1890: see the symbolist magazine L 'Ymagier (Rémy de Gourmont and Alfred Jarry) . The distinction between high and popular art was abolished, and anachronism as well as discontinuity were espoused by this anti-modernism (7-8).

In 1912, an important manifesto of German expressionism appeared: Der blaue Reiter (Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc). Dialogues began between Paul Cézanne, Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, Picasso, Delaunay, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, and Max Pechstein. The editors of the Blaue Reiter called for a spiritual renewal, and artists turned to religious subjects after the first World War; later, the National Socialists rejected all primitivism as being degenerate, and welcomed Neo-Classicism (until 1945). Finally, Paul Vogt exhibited Expressionism: A German Institution in 1980 at New York's Guggenheim Museum. …

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