sat 20/07/2024

Renaissance Impressions, Royal Academy | reviews, news & interviews

Renaissance Impressions, Royal Academy

Renaissance Impressions, Royal Academy

Georg Baselitz’s extraordinary collection of 16th-century woodcut prints

Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, 'The Miraculous Draught of Fishes', c.1523-27 Albertina, Vienna; Photo: Albertina, Vienna; images below: Georg Baselitz collection

Georg Baselitz might seem an unlikely connoisseur of 16th-century prints, but since the Sixties the controversial German artist has amassed a collection of chiaroscuro woodcuts to rival that of any museum.

His interest in Renaissance prints emerged while on a scholarship to Florence, where he studied the work of Mannerist painters like Parmigianino, one of the earliest artists to realise the full potential of chiaroscuro woodcut, both as a highly expressive medium and as a means of transmitting his ideas. 

Supplemented by loans from the Albertina, Vienna, Baselitz’s extraordinary collection follows the progress of the chiaroscuro woodcut from its invention in Germany through its rapid development across Italy and the Netherlands. Both Lucas Cranach and Hans Burgkmair the Elder claimed credit for the invention and Burgkmair’s portrait of Hans Paumgartner, 1512, demonstrates the capacity of the medium to render texture and volume, the luxuriant, hazy softness of Paumgartner’s fur collar captured entirely with line and tone.

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, St George and the Dragon, c.1508-10; George Baselitz collectionCranach and Burgkmair each produced chiaroscuro woodcuts dated 1508, Burgkmair’s St George and the Dragon, c.1508-10 (pictured left), using a key block with which the black lines were printed, and a single tone block coloured with a light brown ink. Far from simply adding colour to a monochrome image, the tone block creates highlights and mid tones which add depth and form to the modelling. Significant areas of the paper are left white, and it is this use of highlights that really defines the chiaroscuro – light and shade – woodcut technique. 

It is perhaps not surprising that Dürer, the great printmaker of the time, remained unmoved by this innovation, concluding, rightly enough, that he had no need of colour when he could perfectly well express all that he wanted with black lines alone. Indeed, after Dürer’s death in 1528, Erasmus eulogised: "Dürer, though admirable also in other respects, what does he not express in monochromes, that is, in black lines. Light, shade, splendour, eminences, depressions". Dürer knew how to make minute tonal gradations within a single block, and in many ways, his fellow printmakers were using the chiaroscuro technique simply to emulate Dürer’s finesse, using the tone block to enhance an essentially linear design. 

The painter and woodcutter Ugo da Carpi introduced chiaroscuro woodcut to Italy, and it was he who unlocked the painterly qualities of the form, recognising that the tone block could have a purpose beyond complementing the lines of the key block. Ugo’s print after a drawing by Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1523-27 (main picture), uses three blocks; the two tone blocks use gradations of red, one of which is boldly printed across the entire sheet, while the black is kept to a minimum, providing accents and occasional areas of deep shadow. Bright white highlights add to the sense of movement and vigour, and the print has all the immediacy and panache of a sketch.

Hendrick Goltzius, Bacchus, c. 1589-90; George Baselitz collectionSome of Ugo’s prints are here in different states, and it is fascinating to see how he and his pupils would reprint an image, using different tones to explore the effects of light and shade. Like Ugo, two of his pupils, Antonio da Trento and Niccolò Vicentino, translated drawings by Parmigianino into print form. The way that these two worked, often producing prints of the same drawing, not only reveals something of the workings of Parmigianino’s workshop, but shows how differently the same drawing could be interpreted by individual woodcutters. Antonio da Trento’s chiaroscuro woodcut of Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyll, c.1529-30, is shown next to Vicentino’s treatment of the same drawing, but where da Trento’s print is graphic and linear, Vicentino’s print is fluid and painterly, and it is interesting to imagine how Parmigianino may have enjoyed the variety of interpretations given to his drawings. (Pictured right: Hendrick Goltzius, Bacchus, c.1589-90.)

Back in Germany, Erasmus Loy was developing the chiaroscuro woodcut in quite a different direction, using the tone blocks to dramatic effect in graphic architectural views, like Courtyard with Renaissance Architecture, c. 1550. These prints were sold as wallpaper that could be pasted onto walls and furniture as a cheap alternative to marquetry, the bold arrangements of black, brown and highlights mimicking the effects of inlaid wood.

That focusing on such a specific area of printmaking can produce a wide-reaching and varied exhibition only emphasises the scale and quality of artistic activity in Renaissance Europe. Works by Domenico Beccafumi and Andrea Andreani give some insight into the ambitions of Italian printmaking of the 16th century, while chiaroscuro woodcuts by Hendrick Goltzius show the technique used to create atmospheric landscapes that explore the effects of light in conditions ranging from bright sunshine to a brewing storm. The exhibition’s narrow focus risks seeming arcane, but actually serves to elucidate just some of the preoccupations and practices of artists in this golden age of printmaking.

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