Lecture closely analyses woodcuts

On Thursday afternoon, the first installment of a lecture series entitled “The History and Techniques of Printmaking” took place at the Francis and Sterling Clark Art Institute. This particular lecture chose to focus on woodcuts. Overflowing with technical detail and description, the lecture is a part of the members’ only program. Led by Michael Cassin, the director of the Center for Education in the Visual Arts, the hour was guided by the close analysis of a series of woodcut prints from individual artists and eras.

Cassin began with a print of Jesus Christ leaving Mary to begin his ministry. In the background Mary is being comforted while Christ holds up two fingers to indicate that he is speaking. But the print reveals more than simply a moment in Christ’s life. The presence of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and other indicators of the Jewish and Islamic faiths denote a crucial moment in world history: that of Christianity superseding the pre-existing Abrahamic faiths. More important, perhaps, than the subject matter is the technical prowess displayed by the work. In fact some would even attribute it to the great master of woodcut printing, Albrecht Dürer. Cassin commented on the question of authorship, stating “some people say the work is cut so finely it must have been done by a specialist (not an artist such as Dürer), others say it is cut so finely it must have been done by Dürer.” Indeed, the detail is striking but as Cassin stated, “Print # 1 is amazing, but when you get closer to Print # 2, it will boggle your mind.”

The second print was a swirling, kaleidoscopic pattern of knots with no distinct subject or conveyance. Cassin appropriately deemed the work “pretty cosmic.” Unlike the first print, its focus was solely on the artistry of printmaking. Cassin’s erudite analysis of the works was reflective of this focus and could have been described as dry by an audience less passionate or knowledgeable about the subject. As the lecture progressed, Cassin’s own sense of self-deprecatory humor shone  through increasingly. At one point he even joked, “Do you really want to know all this? Why would anyone want to know all these details.” When describing the chiaroscuro effect of the third print, he defined the term chiaroscuro as “an example of the type of words people who work in museums like to use that no one else does.”

The fifth print continued to imbue the lecture with humor while shifting it in a new geographical direction. A Japanese print, it displayed an “incredible panoramic view” through the use of as many as 30 blocks. But a part of this panoramic view was a figure sliding down a plane of ice with his legs flailing in the air and his underwear showing. The cut launched Cassin into a brief illumination of the history of printmaking and the unusual way in which Japanese printing techniques infiltrated the consciousness of European artists. The oldest surviving designs printed by block on textiles date back to the second century, as a cheaper and less time consuming alternative to embroidery. But the practice entered Europe through the medium of wrapping paper; China plates sent to the continent were wrapped in Japanese prints, allowing artists such as Gaugin to encounter the practice. This explanation provided a seamless segue to the next print, attributed to the famed Gaugin himself. It depicts one of his various trips to the South Seas, showing a series of carved wooden deities from the area. From Gaugin, the lecture moved into the abstractions of Kandinsky and his print entitled “The Archer.” The work was abstract to the point that identifying the figure of the archer was a point of difficulty. In fact, Cassin was moved to convince his audience that it actually existed. “I promise you he’s there,” he said. “I’m not making this up. I see you don’t believe me, but he’s there.”

The ensuing print counteracted the abstractions of Kandinsky in its detail. In fact, its lines were so fine that it would be deemed a wood engraving rather than cut. Cassin then moved swiftly through the next four prints, from the 1954 view of the Berkshire Hills depicted by a local artist, to the 20th century Munch cut of two people in an embrace, to a 1920s print of an artist’s grief following the death of her son in World War I. The final print was “a bridge between today’s lecture and the next lecture.” It illustrated an allegory of virtue triumphing over vice on a metal plate. Cassin pointed out that the presence of gold leaf means that from close inspection and a certain angle, light can be seen to emanate from virtue.

The presiding theme of the lecture was indeed close inspection. It was a highly technical hour imbued with erudite passion and intended only for those with great knowledge and interest in the field of printmaking. If that description fits, the next lecture will take place on Dec. 5 and will explore engravings.