Making An Impression

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Today when in some quartiers the printed word has become almost passé it is difficult to comprehend how revolutionary and transforming the development of printing was in the 15th and 16th centuries. My mind turned to consider such matters as I came away from a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition at the Royal Academy, called Renaissance Impressions which runs until 8th June and features chiaroscuro woodprints from two collections, those of Georg Basselitz and the Albertina in Vienna (http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions-and-events).

With the advent of printing came the need to find ways of adding illustrations to the books and the art of printing from woodcuts was developed. This enables readers to appreciate great art which otherwise they would only be able to see in situ. Although the prints started out as copies they develloped into an art form in their own right.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts use two or more blocks printed in different colours. The technique was probably invented by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Germany in around 1508 or 1509 and another school developed in Italy under Ugo da Carpi in Italy around 1516. In Germany the technique hit its peak of popularity in the 1520s with the keyblock or line block printed in black and the tone block or blocks had flat areas of colour. The Italian technique which lasted longer into the 16th century were produced without keyblocks and the effect and subtlety achieved are markedly different.

The key thing about woodcuts is that they were capable of mass production (or at least as mass as they got in those days) and it was interesting to see versions of the same woodcut using different colouration with markedly different results. The pioneering example was Burgkmair’s Emperor Maximilian on Horseback of 1508 which established the woodcut as a medium for propaganda. There he is, astride his horse and dressed in fluted armour, the gold shading adding to the image of grandeur.

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Spread over 4 rooms and boasting some 150 or so exhibits there was so much to feast your eyes on. There was Durer’s famous Rhinoceros woodcut, which set the template for how many generations conceived of the creature. For sheer breath-taking impact, particularly as I viewed it on Maundy Thursday, was Hans Sebald Beham’s “Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns”, the careful use of white in the cut so suggestive of tears and sweat.

One wall was devoted to Andrea Andreani’s nine part frieze entitled The Triumphs of Caesar from 1599 which itself was, probably, the final triumph of the chiaroscuro woodprinter’s art.

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My favourite pieces were the three versions of Ugo da Carpi’s Diogenes with the old cynic, a particular hero of mine, clasping a pile of feathers and contemplating the meaning of life. The subtle use of colours together with the swirling lines of his clothing made for a stunning picture. It was noticeable as the techniques developed how colouration and the use of shade for effect took over from the earlier studied draughtsmanship.

Having endured the bear garden of the British Museum’s Viking exhibition it was a sheer delight to have room and time to contemplate the beauty of what you were seeing. A much more pleasurable experience to be sure and, I have to say, more rewarding.

I have been critical of some of the RA’s recent exhibitions but they have come up trumps here. If you have a chance, see it.

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