German Art of the Twentieth Century

By Werner Haftmann; Alfred Hentzen et al. | Go to book overview
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In Germany during the twentieth century, prints, so often a minor accompaniment to the creative energies of a painter or sculptor, assume such major importance that no survey of modern German art can ignore the graphic arts.

The first multiple images printed on paper were woodcuts produced early in the fifteenth century by craftsmen working north of the Alps. The authors of these Gothic woodcuts are unknown. Their works were conceived as everyday objects of faith and devotion, repeatable pictures of religious subjects, cheap to manufacture, easy to distribute, and popular in appeal. Smaller than paintings, woodcuts were sold much as are souvenirs and picture postcards today. Strong, direct, often crude, Gothic woodcuts were to inspire the Expressionists of the twentieth century. Engraving and, later, etching on metal were developed during the sixteenth century.

Allied to the goldsmith's art, the engraving offered a more highly esteemed, expensive, and more precious product. Its execution demanded greater technical ability and its circulation was never as wide. The earliest master of both woodcut and engraving to emerge clearly as an individual was the German Albrecht Dürer. The first Renaissance artist of northern Europe, his success naturally describes the transition from medieval to modern. " Dürer," wrote his friend Erasmus, "what does he not express in monochrome, that is, in lines of black? Light, dark, splendor, eminences, depressions; and, although they derive from one single printing, several aspects are presented to the eye of the spectator. These he arranges in the most significant lines, yet if you should add color, you would injure the work. And is it not more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishment of color?" Dürer's art reveals its chief significance in his prints rather than in his paintings. He is the prototype of the painter-printmaker so characteristic of German art in the early twentieth century.

By 1900, however, three technical innovations had profoundly affected printmaking. Lithography, the most painterly of the graphic processes, was developed around 1800. Its advantage, when used creatively, was that the immediacy of the artist's design on stone was not lost when printed. The second innovation, wood engraving, was a laborious variant of the woodcut. Metal engraver's tools are used to incise the hard, end grain of the block instead of carving the plank side as in a woodcut. Admirably suited


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