The Artistic Revival of the Woodcut

Woodcut is an art technique that uses the woodblocks that have been carved out to produce an image. It is a relief printing that uses the images curved out in the wood block. The printing part of the image is level to the surface of the block, while the non printing parts are curved out using a chisel or a knife. The blocks are usually cut along the grains of the wood block unlike the engraving technique where the block is cut out at the end grain. The surface of the wood block is usually covered with ink using the brayer that left the ink on the surface of the wood block; leaving the non printing area without the ink.

This art of curving the wood block was usually referred to as xylograph, which was used, for images alone. This was mostly used in the printing of books as it presented a single image. The artists usually designed the woodcut leaving the rest to the specialized craftsmen to curve the blocks. The craftsmen, in turn, handed the curved wood block to the specialized printers. This led to the division of labor. The artists used various methods to transfer their designs to the wood block, for the cutter to follow in cutting the images. It was either on the block or on a paper that was later fixed to the block using glue, although most of the image was destroyed during the curving out procedure. This technique was deemed advantageous as most artists adopted the medium easily without the need to learn the use of tools for woodworking.    

Woodcut was an early technique in the West by the use of the paper prints that existed in printing of cloths. The existence of the cheap woodcuts in the western culture led to the fall of the printing standards as the popular prints were exceedingly crude. It was at the end of the century that Albrecht Durer brought the level of the western woodcut that increased the status of the single-leaf woodcut. The use of the woodcut was less often in exquisite art printing. It was not until the nineteenth century that woodcut printing was revived in Europe. The art had then reached a high level in the Far East, mostly in the genre of the ukiyo-e, which had the prints with two colors. This Japanese art became popular as there were outstanding artistic forms even though it was accorded lower status than painting.


During the nineteenth century after Japan was opened to the rest of the world, there was a vast deal of influence to the western culture. Its traditional culture had been adopted by the western cultures. The influence of the Japanese culture in Europe led to some of the artists visiting Japan, and their rich culture of art. The effects of their culture in Europe were intense as the Japanese arts of the ukiyo-e were in the West. This led to the development of Japonosme which depicted the influence of the Japanese art in the West. During the nineteenth century, after the isolation of Japan from the rest of the globe foreign ships began visiting. This had ended the long isolation opening the doors for Japan to export goods to the western countries that included the photography and the printing techniques. The ukiyo-e gained popularity in the West as the artists were impressed by this art of printing.

Japonosme started as the art that collected the Japanese art, of which the ukiyo-e was the most popular. In the year 1861, artist Felix Bracquemond had the reproduction of the ukiyo-e in the Japanese books. Most of the Japanese artistic books were Japanese art of the 1880s’ which had taken the west some time to accept the taste, and appreciate the arts of the great masters. Many French artists and collectors took voyages to Japan during the nineteenth century which even led to the publication of articles of the Japanese aesthetics.

The 1862 London exhibition was considered to be the best event in the history of the Japanese art in the West. It included the collection of the Japanese art. The Japanese influence on the West led to the revival of the woodcut which was thought to be in danger as a serious medium of art. Most of the west artists began to use the woodcut medium for their colored printing. The continuation of the medium became appealing due to its ease of using in completion of the whole process. The use of color was not only being used in prints but also in the books illustrations. The early wood color came into being in books about the arts. The color technique came into being mostly in monochrome of the popular ukiyo-e. This increased the number of color complexity techniques with most artists moving to color printing. The method of this color printing was developed in Europe unlike the earlier use of the white and black color. Artists were able to influence these Japanese prints to fashionable creation and styles with the flat area of color (Du%u0308rer & Kurth, 1967).

The early woodcuts in the Japanese culture were religious until the nineteenth century where the development of this art highly increased the concept of the Japanese symbolism. The flat color use on patterns and their asymmetric composition profoundly influenced the work of western artist that included Gauguin, Van Gogh, Lautrec, and Whistler among others. The evolvement of this woodcut was the extensive use of the textile printing from the wood blocks. The wood cuts became popular for the production of the popular prints until the revival of the Japanese woodcut which was described as a sensitive, personal form of art. The Gauguin prints had the most influence of the Japanese art prints that he exhibited in Paris. The interest in the woodcuts was renewed as the fine medium of printing, and its creative ways of using the materials. The printings were clear of the pen drawing, with no relation to the wood quality. The use of lines was most significant as the grains mass was not common in usage.

There was competition of the lithography and photography, both competing with woodcut and later using it as a mass medium. Thus, a revival interest in the use of the woodcuts among the artists developed. The first projects of Gauguin were to illustrate woodcuts of his manuscript while working with his blocks, and a combination of knives and gouges to produce the prints. He also experimented with the colors using a number of blocks and other mysterious processes. This led to the appreciation of the woodcuts qualities, and its variation and expressions made by its prints. Munch was another artist who used wood to be element of his designs that allowed the grains of the block to be visible. He also used color to in the reproduction of various interpretations of the same image. He led in the use of lithography and the wood cut to be used in the same print, the simplicity of woodcuts, and its rapid production vigor did attract the German expressionists who produced images that had graphic power. These were seen to be startling in their first production.

The generations did witness the large quantities of the smoother paper being produced, and later development of the printing press (Baas & Field, 1984). These advancements broadened the woodcut images spectrum. They relegated the use of woodcut in the productive realm and raised the innovation artistry at the same time which the carver used to manipulate the interpretation of his images. The woodcut was pressured by the industrialization of the printing process making it to find ways to counter the rivals for durable prints. Infinite number of the original prints was printed simultaneously. This led to the speeding up the production process. This led to the development of the electrotype process, alongside the steam printing press of machine-made papers. These photographical images were easily transferable to the wood blocks. Thus, the explosion of the illustrated literature in the nineteenth century became profound.

The production of the woodcut illustrations was overtaken by the industrial assembly, which developed a system where drawings of the subjects were illustrated. They were then turned over to the draughtsman who did simulate the designs accurately. He designs were the transferred to the blocks which were engraved by carvers. The necessity to compete with lithography and metal plates led the woodcuts to be masterful in rendering the grey tones, and imitating all the other forms of production. The Japanese woodcut was revolving all over France amidst its art revival as the Japanese flat color plates, and the reduction of the depth did invigorate the work of these painters. The works of Emile were surely the informed prints of the Japanese with the inclusion of the French traditions. Emile woodcuts were a source of influence to other artists blended from the Japanese woodcuts. The vertical alignment and the flatness of the human figure did recall the Japanese prints (Hnizdovsky & Tahir, 1987).


William Nicholson was a painter, made prints, and worked as a designer in the theatre. He learnt the art in Academia in Paris, and later started the long career by designating posters, and illustrating books. He invented the idea of making woodcuts by his experimenting skills, and came up with a poster that was used in a play called Hamlet by a production company. William artistic work was influenced deeply by the Japanese culture, and the way of making woodblocks as well as incorporating the Italian concept of black line design in the 15th century. On the other hand, he was motivated by the woodblocks design in English, and use of the ancient woodblocks that he came up with in a bookshop called Newark. When he was in Paris, for his studies, he met another artist, and together they made posters, while engaging in production of woodcuts that was later published by a person called Heinemann (Nicholson, Arts Council of Great Britain & Museum, 1980).

In the year 1894, he started cooperating with James Pryde to design posters. Nicholson came up with a design during the winter, in the year 1986 that still happens to be an extremely famous artwork among many people. The print, which happened to, be a self portrait depicted Nicholson, as a unique pavement artist. It was different one, from the usual, traditional artistic work. The artist started creating designs in 1890, and later came up with woodcuts, while experiencing with colors to develop designs. He made a name for himself and inspired the value of artistic work to other level. Notable, magnificent pieces of work include Queen Victoria feted portrait in 1987.

He took part in exhibitions organized by the different artistic organizations. He founded the organization called the Society of Twelve in 1906, and organized a show to display his work at the gallery called Paterson gallery. Some of his achievements are also coming up with designs for the theatre, like the Peter Pan unique set. He concentrated in making portrait all his life. Museums and galleries in London, still display his artistic pieces of work.


Maximilian Kurzweil is another artist, who made prints and happened to be a painter from Austria. He underwent his studies in Paris, at the renowned Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. The first exhibition he participated was in Academia Julian, where his foremost artistic piece of work was displayed for the first time. The exhibition took place in a salon in the year 1897. The Vienna Secession was founded by Maximilian. He later becomes an editor, and an illustrator of a leading magazine called the Secessionist. Part of his achievements was that he worked as a professor in Frauenkunstschule (Kurzweil & Gallery, 1968).

He won the most prestigious Villa Romano prize in the year 1905. His artistic work borrowed largely from renowned artists like, Edward Munch together with Ferdinand Holder. Although his career was short-lived, as he killed himself after shooting his girlfriend, he remains one of the greatest artists in the history. His notables’ pieces of works include the ‘Lady in Yellow’ that was put on display in Vienna Museum.


Another influential artist was Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. He got some prescribed training, together with encouragement from a group of artists who lived in Oslo. The exposure on the idea of Impressionism coupled with Post-Impressionism widened his skills, making him original in his artistic work. His unique themes, which were based mostly on love, as well as death, brought a crucial aspect in the contemporary art. One of his famous piece of work included ‘The Scream’ which symbolized the contemporary spiritual journey full of torment. The materials he used in his artistic work resembled the theme in his paintings, and his unique style. The painting was regarded as a symbol of anguish experienced after the industrial, contemporary age (Prideaux & Munch, 2005).

The nervous breakdown that affected him in 1908, gave him an optimistic approach, and overenthusiastic tone in his artistic work. Although his work never improved to the former level, he never gave up. The proponents of the German idea on Expressionism were influenced by the great painter during the 20th century. The inspiration to come up with this artistic idea might have come from African unrefined materials that are used in their artwork. The artistic works were first displayed in the art museums in the 20th century. He concentrated mostly on emotions in his work. The best example of this was when he portrayed the feelings in a timid girl, who is undergoing a transformation to puberty stage, and at the same time, she is intensely uncomfortable.

The disconcerting nature experienced during his child hood is partly to blame for his style of work. The society he was brought up in happened to be so religious and oppressive influencing considerably on his work. He was brought up and raised in Norway by his mother. She passed away when Edward Munch was five year old as a result of tuberculosis, due to the cold weather experienced thought the year in Norway. He also had this obsession with ladies, although he remained unmarried. His piece of art on The ‘Dance of Life’ focuses on the transformation of a woman detailing her life, and journey to womanhood and then old age. The artist used art to express his emotions and his feelings to capture what is going on in his surrounding. This was his way of artistic art that defined him to many people, and gave him the honor of becoming one of the greatest artists in the 20th century.

Munch is renowned for the use of lithographic technique. This is elaborate in his 1895’s “Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm” which was done using the needle and ink method. This method has also been enormously used by Paul Klee. His prints are authentic, and they did well in the international market. His artistic works display simplicity coupled with creativity. This is an example of a work of art with a purpose. It is for this reason that it has received attention and recognition all over the world. The work is an appreciation of individualism concept coupled with collectivism. This implies that though people have different opinions, it is still possible to build one nation. It promotes unity and peace in the world. Through art, people are able to realize that they have very many things in common. Generally, art is vital since it people to appreciate one another. This is because art helps us reflect on our lives. Eventually, through the concepts of the artist, we are able to change for the better. Through Munch’s work, people are able to share opinions and appreciate one another.


The Japanese art had an enormous impact on the western art, and artist from the western countries. Immediately, the Japanese opened their ports for business there were many imports from the European market. This changed their pieces of work, as they were attracted to the Japanese woodwork. The woodcut prints formed one of the products that were imported into the European countries. The artistic pieces were from the Ukiyo-e school that changed Impressionist, together with the after Impressionist art, showing that the daily happenings from Japan would be presented in a simple but an attractive way.

The first proper display of the Japanese art craft happened at the World Fair in 1867. The pieces of art that were showcased were fans, bronzes and kimonos which were already in countries like, England. The Japanese artwork influenced the theme, and outlook of some artists in Paris. Edgar artistic work borrowed heavily from the Japanese work, although there had never been an exhibition to display the artistic works. Monet works, majored mostly on nature, rather than the European artistic work concerned with composition, perspective and the color of the artistic designs. It was also influenced by the Japanese designs, as his work was asymmetrical in arrangement, and it also emphasized artistic forms that were two dimensional.

This eliminated the idea of linear perspective, which totally ignored the three dimensional forms which were famous in the European countries. His work involved unmediated colors, and a variety of tones, coupled with shadows as a substitute for the dark grounds that were used in the conventional paintings. Most Impressionists, together with the Post Impressionists were affected by the exotic, artistic work from Japan, in the European market in the year 1854. The designs and the techniques formed the woodcuts of Mary Cassatt compositions. The artist from Philadelphian finally relocated to Paris.

Art is slowly moving away from the reality and this is as a result of the changing world. Everything around is changing at such an alarming rate that artists have to keep up with the changing trends if they ant to maintain their status in the art world. This can be termed as the greatest challenge facing artists. Another contributing factor to the changing art world is the introduction of technology in the system.

 Nowadays, paint is made of better quality materials and the brushes are even better. The quality of canvas has also not been left behind because it has been modified to accommodate the changing world trends. If artists fail; to keep up with the modern world, they stand to lose their competitive edge over their younger counterparts in the art world. Art is a representation of the lives of mankind and the environment around them. This means that art changes with every change that happens in the world.

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