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Cutting edge

Vienna’s color woodcut revolution

Carl Anton Reichel: Female Nude, 1909, Vienna, Albertina.
Carl Anton Reichel: Female Nude, 1909, Vienna, Albertina.
Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel: Smoking Cricket, 1910, Private Collection.
Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel: Smoking Cricket, 1910, Private Collection.
Nora Exner: Dog, 1902, Vienna, University of Applied Arts, Collection and Archive.
Nora Exner: Dog, 1902, Vienna, University of Applied Arts, Collection and Archive.
Tobias G. Natter explores how craft met modernism in turn-of-the-century Vienna

Compared to other turn-of-the-century movements, Vienna’s Jugendstil was late to the modernist party. Art Nouveau and Stile Floreale were sweeping through France and Italy with floral flourish well before Austria’s imperial capital embraced a spirit of artistic reform. But it was here, amid the domed grandeur of the Danube monarchy, that the principles of the Art Nouveau reached a zenith like no other. With the founding of the Viennese Secession group and its motto “To every age its art. To art its freedom,” the decade between 1900 and 1910 represents a golden age of artistic innovation and magnificence.

The Secession artists developed a new sensitivity for the beauty of the line. This included the expressive powers of calligraphy, an understanding of refinement, the emancipation of the ornamental, and, like never before, the fertile possibilities of the color woodcut. One of the oldest printing techniques known to man, the woodcut had reached an apex of intricacy under Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer but subsequently receded into the background for almost 400 years before Paul Gaugin, Edvard Munch and, above all, German Expressionists, began to reclaim the medium. The resistant material, reduction of pictorial language, and the heightened impact of line and color allowed for a new kind of graphics perfectly suited to the modernist sensibility.

At the Vienna Secession headquarters, the group established a reputation as the very hub of woodcut development, both stylistically and in terms of artistic value. Successive exhibitions highlighted graphic works, with the fifth Secessionist exhibition, held at the end of 1899 and beginning of 1900, describing the woodcut as “the direct and singularly intended expression of an artistic intention.”

The sixth Secession exhibition focused entirely on Japanese art, highlighting its simplified, reduced aesthetics and ability to combine truth to nature with an abstract language of forms. The catalogue was illustrated by sixteen woodcuts, of which seven were printed in black and nine in orange. Contemporaries spoke ambivalently of “coarse woodcuts” but it was this “coarse” effect which was precisely what made the woodcut so interesting. It was the unusual hardness of the wood which resulted in a new art of line. From March until May 1904, a further exhibition devoted an entire room to contemporary Viennese woodcuts.

Just as important was the Secession group’s magazine, Ver Sacrum – Heiliger Frühling (Sacred Spring), published in a total of six volumes between 1898 and 1903. During this period, Ver Sacrum published no less than 216 woodcuts, most of them in color. In an article published under the title: “Weshalb wir eine Zeitschrift herausgeben” (Why We Are Publishing a Magazine), the Secessionists had explained that they were integrated at least theoretically into a “Kunst-für-alle” movement. They wanted to address everyone, “without distinction of class or fortune. We recognize no difference between ‘high art’ and the ‘minor arts,’ between art for the rich and art for the poor. Art is common property.” The color woodcut allowed the group to square this circle between modern art, social justification, and general accessibility.

The Secessionists’ common aims would, however, be subject to radical rupture in 1905, when, after persistent disputes, Klimt and his friends resigned their membership, losing not only the Secession building itself, but also the infrastructure required for the staging of further exhibitions. It took three years before the Klimt group were able to present themselves collectively once more, within the framework of the Wiener Kunstschau. By 1910, the thrilling catalogue of patterns, animals, figure studies, fantastical grotesques, and typographical treasures slowed to lethargic variations of what had been before. For all its brevity, this golden woodcut age nevertheless succeeded in its central concern: the creation of a two-dimensional art of lasting value. With its balance between contrasting pairs of fullness and emptiness, line and color, round and angular, near and far, reduction and refinement, color woodcut allowed for a new artistic self-awareness within an Art-for- All movement and one of the most intense and astonishing legacies in modern aesthetics.