Double exhibition at Strawberry Hill House shows the past and present of woodcuts

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Double exhibition at Strawberry Hill House shows the past and present of woodcuts
Christiane Baumgartner, Contre-jour 2 (rouge), 2019, © Cristea Roberts Gallery.

TWICKENHAM.- This Autumn, two exhibitions at Strawberry Hill House & Garden give viewers the opportunity to see a range of expert woodcut printmaking, from the German Renaissance to the modern day.

The Devil is in the Detail displays one of the most important series of woodcuts in Albrecht Dürer’s career, the Great Passion, which is rarely seen in its complete set, as well as several other key works from the era. At the same time, There Goes the Sun shows at least 5 modern woodcuts by fellow German artist Christiane Baumgartner (b.1967).

The works are being displayed at Strawberry Hill House & Garden, where centuries earlier Horace Walpole had kept a vast collection of woodcuts and engravings, including over 300 by the German Renaissance master.

The Schroder Collection works on display chart the meteoric rise of the woodcut technique in Europe. From its beginnings as an illustrative and decorative afterthought, to Dürer’s identification and championing of it as a pursuit of pure artistry, and eventually its weaponization as a propaganda tool, where political attacks or revolutionary ideas would lurk in the details of the new imagery.

The work of Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) has been widely celebrated as a towering achievement in artistic and intellectual merit for the last five centuries. A critical part of his body of work includes the woodcuts of religious imagery that he produced throughout his career, at the dawn of the woodcut tradition. One of the most significant of which is the twelve prints of the Great Passion, and this series is on display in its entirety courtesy of the Schroder Collection, with each work individually framed.

The Great Passion series is commonly cited as one of Dürer’s greatest works, which was started around 1497 and finished in 1510. The cycle begins with the Last Supper, follows Christ’s descent into Limbo, and finishes with his resurrection. The frontispiece and eleven full-page woodcuts show Dürer’s style in transition, as the influence of the Italian Renaissance led him to create more clear compositions, highlighting symmetry and balance, as opposed to the busy aesthetic of his earlier gothic output.

In each woodcut, Dürer’s expert designs utilise cross-hatching to draw out different degrees of light, texture and volume, such as in The Harrowing of Hell where Christ uplifts good souls from the depths and clutches of hellish creatures in pursuit. It was his masterful use of this technique that meant the elaborate images no longer needed to be coloured.

In a revolutionary act Dürer self-published out of his own workshop in Nuremburg, and presented the images alongside Latin verses side-by-side in a way that had never been seen before. The verses themselves were also created in a pioneering process, as Dürer commissioned the poems to respond to the pictures, not the other way around. Beforehand, book illustrations had been thought of as simply decorative additions to the text.

His relationship with the woodcut technique encompasses one of the most important illustrated books ever produced, the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), which was created in the same workshop where he learnt his trade, and was even published by his own godfather. This formative work is on display in the exhibition, and along with Dürer’s cycle, visitors have a rare chance to see the key works at the beginning of the European woodcut tradition, highlighting how a new technique influenced and helped bolster one of art’s greatest imaginative minds.

Alongside these masterworks is an exhibition dedicated to the internationally acclaimed artist Christiane Baumgartner. In a career that has seen her work enter into major public collections such as the British Museum, the Albertina and the Stadel museum, Baumgartner’s work utilizes the woodcut print-making technique to create new images from photographs and video stills.

She mixes old and new processes, using computer technology to modernize an image before carving it into a wooden panel by hand. A trademark of her work is keeping the lines and scratches of a video image as part of the final result.

The exhibition focuses on her portrayal of the setting sun, where she catches the bright circle in its inexorable downward movement through the sky. Its light is sometimes rhythmically reflected on waves, as in Totes Meer (2020), or shining through the foliage of trees and dissolving branches in Contre-jour 3 (2019) and Contre-jour 2 (rouge) (2019). The interest in the end of the day’s light has leant an overtly poetic aspect to Baumgartner’s recent work, where sunsets are both beautiful and tinged with sadness.

Like her compatriot 500 years before, Baumgartner has also produced work on the emotion of melancholia. Her print Melancholia (2022) is based on a photograph the artist took on the Baltic island of Rügen, and although inspired by the film of the same name by Lars Von Trier, also alludes to Dürer’s most famous work. In Baumgartner’s version there is no despondent angel, nor traces of geometry or carpentry, but there is a sky, like Dürer’s, over water, lit up by a celestial body. In the darkening landscape the source of light is obscured by clouds, resulting in an odd configuration of brightness. The effect echoes medieval omens, presiding over a world both mysterious and melancholic, as the title suggests.

The historical importance of woodcutting is also being explored in depth, as it branched off from being a purely artistic and decorative pursuit to one that emboldened the politics and propaganda of the time, with both the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) and the father of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther (1483-1546) relying on the power of the technique to further their message.

Maximilian I embarked on an ambitious campaign of self-promotion, summoning artists and writers to Augsburg to produce books glorifying the Habsburg dynasty and immortalising him as a chivalric king. The exhibition includes two of these works, including the first edition of The White King, a thinly disguised biography of Maximilian with woodcuts by Hans Schäufelein (1480-1540) and Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) amongst others.

Martin Luther also understood the importance of audience reach, and utilised the technique to disseminate the Protestant doctrine. He famously enacted his propaganda against the Roman Catholic Church with the publication of his Ninety-Five Thesis and satirical pamphlets. However, an unexpected battleground were Bible illustrations. Luther’s new German translation of the Bible became an instant best-seller, as it laid the foundations of modern German language, and also created a new Lutheran iconography. These ground-breaking illustrations abandoned traditional imagery in favour of a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. Lutheran illustrations sought to connect the concept of evil with Rome and the Catholic Church, where demonic creatures now wore Vatican regalia, and the Whore of Babylon sported the papal crown. The exhibition includes two translated Bibles by Luther and his anti-papist work The Passion of Christ and the Antichrist (1521), with illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Derek Purnell, Director at Strawberry Hill House & Garden, said: “It is with great pleasure that we announce two exhibitions opening this autumn that will run simultaneously at Strawberry Hill House. They both feature the imagination and skill of artists creating woodcuts and engravings and link to Horace’s Walpole appetite for works in this medium.

“To once again be working with the Schroder Collection is a delight and we are particularly thankful to Caterina Badan for her curation of The Devil is in the Detail. Similarly, we are thankful to Jonathan Watkins, who has curated There Goes The Sun. The enthusiasm and energy that Caterina and Jonathan bring to these exhibitions is infectious and completely engaging.

“The nature of change; why, when and how it occurs is a theme that runs through both exhibitions. Over 500 years separate these artists but essentially the practice of carving images in wood then to be transferred on to paper is unchanged. The fascination in the process, power and impact of these works is timeless.”

Dr Silvia Davoli, Curator at Strawberry Hill House & Garden, said: “In line with Walpole's vision, Strawberry Hill House and Garden is proud to present these two temporary exhibitions. They juxtapose a historical and a contemporary approach to woodcuts, offering our audience a unique chance to appreciate the expressive potentials of this artistic medium."

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