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Cut! And Print It!
How Old Masters Made Cinematic Moments Out of Blocks of Wood

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ordinary things you might find around the house -- a knife, a plank, some paper and some ink -- are all you need to print a woodcut. It's not complicated.

Here's how to print a line: First draw the line on wood, then cut away its sides (this leaves a standing ridge on whose flat top sits the ink), then press it against paper. It sounds simple. But "The Baroque Woodcut" at the National Gallery of Art includes 80 old master prints, all of which were made that way, and they aren't simple at all.

They're fastidious and learned and rich. So is the exhibit in the gallery's West Building. Its thoughts aren't simple. "The Baroque Woodcut" has big brains in it. The show begins with Titian, who was a very mighty master, and then visits Albrecht D¿rer, who was another, and then soars into the visions of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, who was a third. Coming back to earth, "The Baroque Woodcut" closes with the naturalistic art of the 17th-century Dutch.

The show is like a journey, which starts in Titian's Venice, calmly for the most part, and ends in Rembrandt's Amsterdam, with calm restored again. In between, however, the viewer gets to swerve and swim among the swelling lines and oddly capsized spaces of Europe's high baroque.

By the time you reach "Hercules Triumphant Over Discord," which was designed by Rubens and cut by Christoffel Jegher circa 1633, the stern straight-line proprieties of old vanishing-line perspective have effectively dissolved.

Everything's in movement: Hercules, his knobbly club, the goddess he is trampling, her jutting leg, her snake. Foreshortenings are everywhere, as are discombobulations. Your point of view is moving, too. First you're on the ground well below the battle looking at the underside of Hercules' muscled thigh. Then you're high up in the air hovering beside an exasperated putto who is doing what he can to place a crown of laurel on the hero's curly head. Nothing is at rest. Experiencing the picture is like riding on a boat at sea, rolling with the waves.

This wood's movielike battle was designed to be overhead (on the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall in London's Whitehall Palace). And it's not really about a Mediterranean demigod, it's an allegory of kingship. Filming thrills in Hollywood takes many specialists. So did woodcuts as fine as this one. They're cooperative works of art.

Rubens gets most of the credit, but not all of it. Jegher was terrific, too. In his work, no mistakes were allowed. Had the curving line of Discord's knee snapped off during cutting, he'd have had to start again. Not any old wood would do. Rock maple is too hard to cut. White pine is too soft. Fruitwood is better. Pearwood is the best. Someone had to fell the tree, select the wood and season it. Someone had to make the sheet, build the press, concoct the ink. Rubens's prints were sold throughout baroque Europe. Publishers, distributors and shippers also were involved.

Most of us know Titian's name, but his woodcutters are anonymous. Few of us have heard of Rubens colleague Jegher, or Bartolomeo Coriolano and Giovanni Britto, who worked with baroque painter Guido Reni, sharing costs and profits, from 1627 until Reni's death in 1642. In Peter Parshall's exhibition these woodcutters get their due. Parshall heads the gallery's old master prints department, from which most of these woodcuts come. It was he who picked the show.

The baroque woodcut industry didn't just produce pictures for the walls. It also made frontispieces for books, pages for Bibles, sacred images for home altars and technical illustrations for academic texts. One of the grandest -- Andreas Vesalius's 1543 treatise on anatomy -- has been borrowed for the show.

The biggest picture shown is a travelogue. "Procession of the Doge in the Piazza San Marco, Venice" was both designed and cut in Switzerland by Jost Amman circa 1565. Amman's picture is so big that he needed 14 separate blocks for its image, and five more for the lettered text that runs across its top.

The Venetian scene he chose is the Doge's ceremonial "Marriage With the Sea." We get to see the ruler, and the ceremonial barge he is about to ride, and the city's famous courtesans, and the market stalls put up every year by the piazza, and the meats they sold. Amman, unfortunately, had never been to Venice. This did not dissuade him. He knew that there were plunging bronze horses on the facade of San Marco (though he didn't know how many), and he knew that statues stood on the pillars by the water (though he didn't know what they looked like). When he wasn't sure he guessed. The blocks outlived their cutter. Amman died in 1591. The big picture shown was printed in 1666.

Woodcutting isn't only for black lines. Why stop there? By using extra blocks and reprinting the sheet, you can liven it with color. One such chiaroscuro woodcut, an image of a balding man by Jan Lievens of Holland, is among the calmer pictures at the end of Parshall's show.

Exhibitions of old master prints are not everyone's cup of tea. Most old woodcuts are small. Few of them have colors. And survey shows, like this one, don't come with urgent narratives or domineering stars. The pictures stand alone, each is its own world, and they ask to be examined one by one and line by line.

Take your time. It's worth it. "If you don't pay close attention," says Parshall, "there's nothing much to see."

The Baroque Woodcut will remain on view through March on the ground floor of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. It is supported by a grant from the Thaw Charitable Trust. The museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Christmas Day and New Year's Day. For information call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov. Admission is free.

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