Chiaroscuro Woodcuts: Can Prints Be Art? Exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts

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Hendrick Goltzius, Hercules Killing Cacus, 1588

Hendrick Goltzius, Hercules Killing Cacus, 1588. Copyright image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) presents Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, showcasing chiaroscuro woodcuts selected from two of the world’s finest collections: Vienna’s Albertina Museum and the personal collection of Georg Baselitz Hon. RA.

Despite representing a key printmaking invention, chiaroscuro woodcuts remain relatively unknown and little studied as an art form. Renaissance Impressions seeks to bring this important art form the recognition it deserves.

Dr. Achim Gnann of the Albertina and Dr. Arturo Galansino of the Royal Academy jointly curated Renaissance Impressions, which the Albertina, Vienna and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, organised.

The organisers especially appreciate their sponsors, JTI and Edwards Wildman, whose financial support makes exhibitions like this possible.

What is Chiaroscuro?

In her article “Out of the Shadows,” leading printmaker Anne Desmet RA explains, ″Chiaroscuro, the Italian term for strong contrasts between light and shade, is also the technical term for the use of such contrasts to achieve a sense of volume when depicting an object – such as a human figure – on a flat plane.″

A chiaroscuro print might use up to five woodblocks, the key block plus up to three or four tone blocks. Each block allows a single tonal view of the image so that the finished product appears three-dimensional. Images seem to dramatically leap off the paper.

It is not the actual colour, but the contrasts of light and dark, that characterise a true chiaroscuro woodcut. In a true chiaroscuro woodcut, the printmaker uses the unprinted areas of the paper to provide the highlights.

Developed in Germany in the early 16th century, the chiaroscuro woodcut technique quickly became popular because it is far more forgiving than its predecessor, silver point, and provides a far wider range of effects. A complicated printing method, the technique required close collaboration between the artist who drew the scene, the artisan who carved it in relief on the woodblock, and the printer. One example of this collaboration is St George and the Dragon, c. 1508-10, signed by Hans Burgkmair and the Antwerp woodcutter, Jost de Negker.

Geroge & the Dragon, chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks, the tone block in beige

St George and the Dragon, chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks, the tone block in beige, Collection of Georg Baselitz. Copyright image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Who Invented the Technique?

At the turn of the sixteenth century several artists claimed to have invented the technique. Lucas Cranach even back-dated some of his works in an attempt to prove ownership. It is, however, more likely that German artist Hans Burgkmair the Elder is the father of chiaroscuro. His depiction of St. George and the Dragon, dated 1508, is the earliest-known example.

Italian artists, such as Ugo da Carpi, and Dutch printmaker and painter Hendrick Goltzius adopted the technique and developed it further. The display includes a large group of works by both artists including Goltzius’ Hercules Killing Cacus, 1588 and Ugo da Carpi’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, c. 1523-27.

Ugo da Carpi, who also claimed that he invented the chiaroscuro woodcut technique, worked solely with tone blocks which he carved himself. His method influenced artists such as Antonio da Trento, Niccolo Vicentino, Domenico Beccafumi and Andrea Andreani; all of whom have works appearing in this exhibition.

Art Historian and Curator Arturo Galansino

Curator Arturo Galansino spoke to Decoded Arts about the exhibition.

Decoded Arts: Can you give our readers a brief explanation of the chiaroscuro woodcut technique.

Arturo Galansino: The technique consists of supplementing the line block, the normal woodcut, with other colour blocks that we call the tone blocks. In this technique we lay one on top of the other creating many different layers of print.

Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of fishes, c.1523-27. Copyright image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of fishes, c.1523-27. Copyright image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Decoded Arts: Why was it revolutionary?

Arturo Galansino: It was revolutionary because for the first time in the history of art, artists were able to mechanically produce colour images. Before this, artists sometimes added colour to the prints by hand. In this case we had woodcuts that were coloured with a mechanical process so there is a kind of industrial revolution in the creation of these coloured images.

Decoded Past: We know the German, Dutch, French and Italian artists adopted this technique, but did it reach the British Isles?

Arturo Galansino: Actually… in the Print Room here at the Royal Academy you can see a selection of chiaroscuro prints by John Jackson who was working on chiaroscuro woodcuts in Venice in the 18th century. One of his patrons commissioned some views of Venetian paintings, so you will see reproductions of works by Titian, Tintoretto, and so on.

Hendrick Goltzius, Bacchus - Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks, the tone block in light brown, 23.8 x 14.3 cm

Hendrick Goltzius, Bacchus – Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks, the tone block in light brown,
23.8 x 14.3 cm. Copyright image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Decoded Past: Which is your favourite piece and why?

Arturo Galansino: I like the series of the gods by Goltzius for their mannerist beauty. They are somewhere between perfection and bad taste. They are a little bit kitsch… that is what I like. They belong to the very highly erotic pornographic culture, full of luxury and sex, that belonged to the world of Rudolph II, Emperor of Prague at the turn of the 16th/17th centuries. I find these images almost funny in a certain way.

Royal Academy Exhibition

Those interested in the underappreciated art of chiaroscuro woodcuts should visit the Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna exhibit in The Sackler Wing of Galleries at the RA, 15th March – 8th June 2014.

© Copyright 2014 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Arts

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