Renaissance Impressions, Chiaroscuro Woodcuts at the Royal Academy of Arts, London
Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna
Dates: 15 March-8 June 2014
Venue: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
Admission price: £10.00 for an adult ticket, free to Friends of the Royal Academy
This is an exhibition of sixteenth-century chiaroscuro woodcuts from Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. So what is a chiaroscuro woodcut? Chiaro is an Italian word meaning “clear” and oscuro is an Italian word meaning “obscure.” As applied to works of art the term chiaroscuro usually means monochrome painting using light and dark only or refers to the distribution of light and dark areas in a picture. The gallery guide for the exhibition explains how the technique is applied to the woodcut.
A chiaroscuro woodcut is created using at least two wooden blocks which are used for printing one on top of the other. One block is used for line drawing and the others are for colours and white highlights. The process starts with a mirror image drawing on the line block and all the areas to be left unprinted are cut away. Highlights are created by carving the lightest tone block so that the parts of the paper that are not printed on provide the highlights. Additional blocks provide the middle tones and shadows. It is a defining feature of the chiaroscuro woodcut that the unprinted areas of the paper provide highlights: it is this contrast between light and dark that is the key feature of the chiaroscuro woodcut, not the use of colour. If this sounds a bit confusing the technique is explained in detail by a video at the exhibition. It is easier to understand the technique once you see it in action.
So what does a chiaroscuro woodcut look like? The poster for the exhibition feature Diogenes by Ugo da Carpi, a woodcut from c. 1527 based on a painting by the Italian artist Parmigianino. This woodcut is printed from four blocks and the tone blocks are here in green and blue.
It is a feature of these woodcuts that they can be printed in different colours and there are three different versions of Diogenes displayed, all using different colours.
The technique, which must have been a very exciting one at the time, was developed around 1500 and credit for invention of the chiaroscuro technique is given to Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Burgkmair the Elder. Outstanding practitioners of the technique such as Ugo da Carpi, Domenico Beccafumi, Hendrick Goltzius and Andrea Andreani are represented in the exhibition.
The detailed technique of Hans Burgkmair can be seen in Emperor Maximilian on Horseback.
The subject matter of the woodcuts is much as you would expect from this period. Emperor Maximilian on horseback is a typical piece of Renaissance self-congratulation but other subjects include portraits, religious subjects, social satire and landscapes. The series of small landscapes by Henry Goltzius are particularly impressive. The subject matter also includes the sensational, illustrated by Witches’ Sabbath (1510) by Hans Baldung Grien.
One of the most striking things about the exhibition is how it illustrates the very different results that the chiaroscuro woodcut can achieve. In sharp contrast to the work of Hans Burgkmair the Elder the work of Domenico Beccafumi has a painterly look.
Many of the woodcuts are based on works by Renaissance painters such as Parmigianino, Titian and Mantegna. Such works should be regarded as more than just copies.
Perhaps the most impressive of these versions is The Triumphs of Caesar (1599) after Mantegna, a series of forty woodcuts that took Andrea Andreani seven years to complete. Nine of these woodcuts are in the exhibition.
The work of Erasmus Loy has a stark rather modern feel, though appears primitive in technique compared to other exponents of the chiaroscuro woodcut.
The comparative crudity of this woodcut can be contrasted with what the exhibition claims is one of the pinnacles of the genre, the portrait Hans Paumgartner by Hans Burgkmair the Elder. It is difficult to disagree with this claim as this work with, among it other merits, a superbly rendered fur collar, is a display of virtuoso technique.
Perhaps the title of this exhibition means that it is never going to be crowd puller and when I attended on Easter Monday 2014 there must have been less than twenty people at the exhibition. Nevertheless, for anyone who does attend this will be a very rewarding experience because the exhibition has works of the highest quality on display and is very informative about the fascinating technique used to create them.
Friday 6 June 2014, the Reynolds Room, 6.30-7.30pm, Mary Beard, the Royal Academy’s Professor of Ancient Literature explores some of the classical themes from the exhibition – some well-known, others more arcane – from the rape of the Sabines to the tragic Narcissus. Tickets are £16.00, £7.00 reductions, including exhibition entry.
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Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.