The inaugural exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until March 20) explores the Renaissance in Germany. Comprised completely of prints from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, you can find engravings by Heinrich Aldegrever (1502–ca. 1561) and stipple engravings by Hans Sebald Beham (1500–1550). But you can’t study printmaking in the German Renaissance without a serious consideration of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). And we’re lucky enough to have 14 prints by the master! This is the third and final of a series of posts related to Dürer’s prints.
Sometimes the specialized terminology used in the study of art can be intimidating. This can particularly be a problem with works on paper! In this post I hope to explain the difference between two important printmaking techniques, using Albrecht Dürer as an example, so that they are no longer so daunting.
As you might expect, a woodcut is made by cutting into a block of wood. The artist creates an image by eliminating material where he wants no ink to transfer to the paper—in other words, the wood is carved out for the light areas. The relief left left behind is inked and then stamped onto the paper. Here you can see an original woodblock designed by Dürer in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Victoria and Albert Museum produced this video to show the process.
Early woodcuts appeared in Europe by 1400. They often have thick lines, because when they are stamped, the thin strips of wood have a tendency to become broken. At first, they were simple illustrations for written books, meant to help those who could not read to understand the text. Blocky, uncomplicated shapes would sometimes be colored in by hand.
There are two examples of these types of illustrative woodcut prints in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s current display. One is a page that probably relates the Martyrdom of St. Leodegarius from the book Golden Lives of the Saints. It was printed and published by Anton Koberger (German, ca. 1445–1513), who just happens to be Albrecht Dürer’s godfather!
The other is a two-page view of Bamberg, a town in Germany, created by Michael Wolgemut (Germany, 1434/37–1519)—who was Dürer’s teacher—and Wilhelm Pledyenwurff (German, ca. 1460–ca. 1494).
In the late 1400’s, Albrecht Dürer took the German tradition of woodcuts to the next level. Take a look at St. John’s Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks, or another woodcut that is currently on view, The Hermits St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Desert.
This latter woodcut illustrates how Dürer used dark and light areas in a sophisticated way. With only two colors—that of the ink and the paper—we was able to create a wide variation in tone. By changing the quality of the line—sometimes they are close together and sometimes they are far apart—his figures have mass and sit within a three-dimensional space, providing a sense of reality. He also changes the direction of his lines to create an active, interesting image that keeps the eye moving.
Engravings are made on a metal plate, usually made of copper. The image is made directly on the plate with a wedge-shaped tool called a burin. When ink is applied to the plate, it settles into the grooves. Then the plate is wiped to remove the extra ink. The plate and paper, which has been dampened to aid in the transfer, are pressed under pressure, which causes the paper to dip slightly into the grooves to pick up the ink. This means that engraving is a type of intaglio printmaking. Intaglio is an Italian word used to describe any printing technique that holds the ink in this way and requires pressure to transfer the ink to the paper. A great video showing the process of creating an engraving produced by the Rhode Island School of Design can be found here.
Engravings have benefits over woodcuts. Creating an engraving is much more like drawing, in that the lines you put on the plate are the ones that will creative the image. Also, the fine tools used to create the design allow for smaller details and greater tonal range.
But there are disadvantages to engraving. One is that engraved book illustrations have to be inserted separately, because the print is made with a different technique; you cannot use an intaglio and a relief technique at the same time. In addition, you cannot get as many good prints from an engraved plate—every impression on the (relatively) soft copper plate wears away on those fine details. Also, it is difficult to do without special training or experience. When engravings became popular, all artists could not learn the technique, so they would create the designs for the specialists who found themselves in high demand. Finally, engravings were more expensive than woodcuts due to the cost of materials, relative rarity, and the investment in tools and knowledge.
Despite these drawbacks, the artistic capabilities of engravings meant that by the 1470’s in Germany, a few artists were creating large-scale engravings in Germany. One of the most important was Dürer. His interest in complicated images was only aided by the fine detail achievable through engraving.
We’ve looked at one engraving already—Madonna with the Monkey. Another engraving on view now is The Sea Monster.
Just look at the tiny details that Dürer gets into this engraving, which is only 9 7/8 inches high and 7 ½ inches wide. From the scales on the sea monster’s body, to the small figures on the far shore, to each delicately rendered tree, to the imaginative castle in the background (which in itself would be a tour-de-force of printmaking), the strengths of engravings are clear.
Dürer still uses lines to create light and shadow—and contrasts ink to bare paper—in his engravings, but without the heaviness associated with the thicker lines of woodcut. The pale skin of the nude in the foreground is more paper than ink, yet she is perfectly modeled in three-dimensions. Or the sky, were bare paper clouds contrast with the fine lines of the sky.
The Sea Monster is an interesting engraving to use for this post because it shows how, for all of his skill in showing religious subject matter, Dürer could be enigmatic. What is going on in this print? There is an obvious narrative—or is there? A sea monster has kidnapped a woman—who was ostensibly bathing with her companions at the shore below the castle. But what is the source of this story? No one is quite sure. For all of the tales of women being kidnapped in mythology and folklore, nothing truly matches the details of this print.
What if Dürer is putting together lots of interesting details for the challenge? And maybe so that he could put a reclining nude front and center? A nude, who, despite her very German-looking hairstyle, resembles a lounging Italian Renaissance goddess. She certainly doesn’t seem to mind being abducted, and in fact seems to appreciate the sea monster’s support as if he was a pool raft. Not a very appropriate moral lesson here. Maybe Dürer set the scene so that he can show the nude woman without raising Catholic eyebrows? In his own records, Dürer gives no hints, only referring to the print as Meerwunder, which is German for sea monster, when he sold it as part of a large group in November 1520.
A study of Dürer’s prints, both woodcuts and engravings, shows his intellectual curiosity and interest in showing the virtuosity of the artist. Just take for instance what is probably Dürer’s most famous print—Melencolia I, which the Milwaukee Art Museum also owns and is on view. It’s also one of the most complicated, with layer upon layer of intellectual meaning within its precise details.
Make sure that you visit before March 20 to see these prints and a lot more! And look for a blog post this spring related to our next works on paper exhibition which will talk about another printmaking technique: etching.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.