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T is impossible to more than conjecture the origins of the arts; the roots of them are so ramified and so inextricably interwoven, and the demarcations so slight as they recede into the mists of time. The art of printing offers no exception. In fact, the basic idea of it is a natural act of all living creatures having feet. The practical application of printing goes back to the dawn of history, although the printing press dates to less than five hundred years ago. The woodblock furnishes evidence of a very early employment of the principle, despite the fact that in the oldest existent block no printing ink was used. That would make it none the less a printing device.
The woodcut is the oldest of the graphic techniques. No history of it is properly introduced without a mention of the print called 'St. Christopher Bearing the Infant Jesus' which was found in a monastery at Buxheim. It is famous because for a long time it was called the oldest dated woodcut in existence - the date being 1423. Some authorities still think it is; others point to the 'Virgin with the Holy Child' with the date 1417 that may have been added to the print instead of cut on the block.
The Chinese printed a block-book before the year 1050. The Chinese are always knocking the conceit out of the Westerners assumptions. The earliest printed book from movable type, being in Chinese characters, and therefore more obviously pictures than our own letters (which were once pictures too), dates to the year 868 A.D.
Block prints were produced in Japan as early as 770 of the Christian era. The idea was borrowed from the Chinese however, who, according to Strange, made prints in the fourth century Anno Domini. When it comes to a matter of printing on material other than paper the cloth merchandized by the Phoenicians before Alexander the Great broadcast his famous nostalgia, must be considered. Papyrus was in use in Egypt over 4000 years ago; as likely as not some sort of printing or stamping was done on this early form of paper, as it certainly was on other materials. There is a wooden stamp in existence with a hieroglyphic design cut in the face of it to impress on unbaked bricks. It was found in a tomb at Thebes. That path takes us to the pintaderas, those seals of baked clay or of stone that were used for making designs on human bodies. Perhaps less durable wood ones were used anterior to the clay or stone ones. This cultural development belongs to the Neolithic Age. There have been sporadic attempts to revive this scheme of bodily decoration by the snappier modern bathing beauties.
Finally, to go back the remaining step, we have the imprint, apparently a premeditated act, of a human hand in red paint on the side of a cave in Altamira in France. This is supposed to have been made anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 years ago - the Aurignacian Period of the Paleolithic Age. Thus are the honors brought back to Europe, with glory to all nations, and plenty of it to go around.
As the prior development of the woodcut by the Orientals had no effect on the independent and apparently spontaneous outburst in Europe, further allusions to their work may safely be left out of this very brief history.
The woodcut, as it influenced our culture, appeared first in Germany, perhaps coincident with the introduction of paper. The first paper mill in Germany is said to have been set up near Mainz about 1320. The first one of definite record in that country was at Nuremberg in 1390. But paper was in use there before that year. It appears that the Germans were the first to practice card-making as a trade, and playing cards are supposed to have been the first articles printed on paper in Occidental history. Apropos, the burghers of Nuremberg before the year 1384 were permitted to play cards, provided they ventured only small sums, as mentioned in the by-laws of the town. But playing cards were in disrepute previous to 1380, for the pages of the court of Charles V were lectured on the impropriety of playing at dice and cards . . . and haunting taverns and cabarets.
As a sort of counter-balance to the pernicious influence of card playing, the blessings of Indulgences next appeared. These medieval passports to Paradise and licenses to break church regulations were sold by enterprising priests. It is doubtful that St. Peter was as taken in by these tickets as were the buyers. The indulgences were printed from blocks cut in imitation of the hand-writing then in use by the clerics.
In the early part of the fifteenth century block-books began to appear. These evidently were the first printed books, excepting the Oriental, for they could be printed without a press. The matter to be printed - text and pictures - was cut on a block of wood. This block to be printed was then charged with ink by a dabber, and an impression made by rubbing a flat piece of horn or wood over the back of the paper that had been laid on the block's inked surface. Only one side of the sheet could be used, as burnishing would spoil a printed side. The sheets were then bound; sometimes the blank pages were pasted together. The book, you see, was simply a series of prints from woodblocks. Here is a good place to say that the word 'book' comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, bece, beech. The ancient Saxons and Germans in general 'wrote' or scratched runes on beech boards. The word 'write' comes from writan - to scratch or score; to write a book was to score a board.
In the middle of the century a block-book with the cheerful title of 'Ars Moriendi' - the Art of Dying - came on the market. It is considered quite the most beautiful of its kind, and was by far the most popular one. Of its twenty-four pages, eleven were pictures. All of the text was cut, of course. It is the sort of thing that would have appealed mightily to a modern artist, but not for the subject matter. Illiteracy had its advantages, it will be noticed. The masses being unable to read had perforce to be served through the agency of the artists. A modern woodcutter, when he reflects on the restricted market of today and the fact of the movies serving the masses is very likely to hope for the return of the good old Dark Ages.
Albrecht Durer is the greatest glory of the woodcut. He designed many pictures for the medium between 1492 and 1528, the year of his death. The first important work by him was a series of sixteen large allegorical scenes from the Apocalypse; then the 'Larger Passions of Our Lord', a series of eleven large cuts; the 'Life of the Virgin' and the 'Smaller Passions ', a series of thirty-seven cuts - all of them very popular. There were, besides, many miscellaneous subjects.
Hans Holbein's 'Dance of Death', a series of woodcuts so extraordinary in quality that nothing approaching them has appeared since, was issued in 1538 - at least in part. This morbid series of pictures, less than two inches by three in size was cut by Hans Lutzelburger, than whom there was no greater cutter.
Except for the item relating to the evils of card-playing and hanging around cabarets, all in the above six paragraphs happened in Germany, whose culture was so courageously assailed by money lenders and professional patriots a few years ago. German craftsmen had developed the art of printing to the highest point, and then sought other worlds to conquer. Two of them carried the art to Italy near Rome in 1464. Five years later two more opened a shop in Venice. Ruppel is credited with carrying it to Switzerland, and Lambert Palmert to Spain. For some reason no German with a knowledge of, or a desire to spread the art, went to England, consequently it was slow to appear there. Caxton was the first English printer; he learned printing in Cologne. England contributed very little either to the cause of printing or to woodcutting until the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Lutzelburger's cutting marked the peak. For some reason or other the art degenerated. Perhaps the continual strife, especially the religious persecutions, caused it. Certainly the years of relentless throat-cutting that the Christian sects practiced on each other at this period must have had an unquieting effect on woodcutting, to say nothing of the other arts.
Holland was early in the field. Aldus in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century printed the 'Dream of Poliphius', a book in which the relations between the illustrations and the letter-press are considered perfect. The early woodcut and printing history of France centers around the frequent 'Books of the Hours'. With a trinity like Durer, Holbein and Lutzelburger within her borders Germany had little rivalry in quality of product from any other country; she stands easily supreme in the art.
In the seventeenth century woodcuts were bad; worse in the eighteenth. The fine books were being illustrated with copper engravings, and the woodcut served principally to embellish the cheap, or as they were more familiarly known, the 'chap-books '. These cuts were the crudest imaginable with the possible exception of some of the modern attempts.
In the latter part of the eighteenth century Thomas Bewick, who had 'started life' as a metal-engraver, recognized the greater possibilities in wood-engraving and advanced the medium to a new and fresh ideal. Bewick developed the use of the white line technique, although he was by no means the innovator of it, nor of the use of box wood as the medium. Before Bewick's time and for a period after, the engraver or cutter was concerned in cutting the design in facsimile, that is, he cut around the black lines of the drawing on the block, so that the finished result was like a modern process cut, only, as a general thing, not so good. Bewick and his followers did not consider the black line at all; their consideration was the white line. In other words, the earlier cutters got a black-line-on-white-ground effect; the later, a white-line-on-a-black-ground. Bewick's engravings of animals and birds have been, and for the matter still are, greatly admired.
Another famous set of wood-engravings was that made by William Blake in 1820 for the Thornton edition of Ambrose Phillips 'Pastoral '. The medium was new to him; his engraving hitherto had been done on copper. The results for the 'Pastoral' were not satisfactory to the professional wood-engravers; they made great sport of the work. It was only through pressure Blake's friends brought to bear on Thornton that the designs were used at all. A few of the blocks were cut by trained engravers, and others had parts sawed off to reduce their size, regardless of the loss in composition. It might be said in passing that Phillips' 'Pastoral' is now known only because Blake made the illustrations, and the three blocks that were cut by the smart professional engravers are exhibited, when they are exhibited at all, as horrible examples of cold-blooded merciless skill.
Incidentally, Thornton has become immortalized.
Blake inspired a group of young artists, chief of whom were Calvert and Palmer. Calvert made six or seven wood-engravings, small in size but of the purest poetry. Blake, Calvert and Bewick are England's great trinity in the art, notwithstanding that Blake and Calvert together cut less than two dozen designs.
Bewick was the artistic father of a school of engravers that culminated in what is known as the American school, and of which the brightest star was the late Timothy Cole. To insist upon the fly in the ointment, the best members of the school were foreign born. This form of engraving, an interpretative development, has been roundly damned, chiefly by English commentators - perhaps because it is not like many sloppy modernist expressions. It was fostered by the magazines of fifty years ago, when a magazine was more than an exposition of tin-can foods, bon ami toilet stationery and hairless unmentionables, and when for some peculiar reason a magazine could thrive primarily by its literary and artistic content, with advertising playing a decidedly minor role.
As a reproductive art in the service of commerce the woodcut was suffered to almost expire because of the cheaper and quicker mechanical processes that were being perfected in the latter part of the past century. Some commercial engraving has persisted, as more effective electrotypes can be made from such than from zinc process cuts. Solitary devotees in various countries kept alive the feeble flame. William Morris did much to revive interest in the art. Ricketts, Shannon and Sturge Moore of England turned to it. Their work is based on the early Italian linear conceptions, in which very little of the possibilities of the woodblock were exploited. Their results were equivalent to simple pen and ink drawings that could as well have been reproduced by mechanical means. In Germany, Emil Orlik stimulated activity to a revival. In France, Lepere carried on the tradition, but Valloton affected a change in the approach to the block. One by one artists all over the world have taken up the medium until today it has assumed proportions, ramifications and forms that would have astonished the men of fifty years ago.
The woodblock still holds great possibilities; what the future holds for the medium can only be conjectured, as a sensible prophet would say.