“ApocalyptiCAT,” a woodcut; on view soon at the Goethe Institut. (Franca Bartholomaei)

Franca Bartholomaei knows about the kinship of irreconcilables.

“The terrible and the silly often lie close together,” the German artist observes. “If you look long enough at something that frightens you, it appears, sometimes, ridiculous. And also the other way around.”

Bartholomaei was generalizing, but she was also commenting on the mixture of somberness and humor that runs through her woodcuts and papercuts — expressionistic works stocked with crisply delineated phantasmagorical images in black and white.

A case in point: “ApocalyptiCAT,” the endearing-and-sinister woodcut that is the title piece of an exhibition of Bartholomaei’s art running at the Goethe-Institut Washington from Aug. 27 through Oct. 10. Inspired by a glimpse of one of Bartholomaei’s own cats, as well as by a man/tree hybrid in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the image suggests a steampunk military engine crossbred with a Friskies mascot.

In an e-mail, Bartholomaei said she borrowed the woodcut’s title for the exhibition as a whole because it “reflects two important aspects of my creative work — enigmatic revelations on one side and my love for cats and animals on the other.” (The artist is scheduled to visit Washington for the opening of the exhibit.)

Violinist Reiko Watanabe and pianist Ikuyo Nagata performed at the residence of the ambassador of Japan on Aug. 13. (Michala Rolle)

Growing up in the Saxony-Anhalt region, in what was then East Germany, Bartholomaei displayed artistic talent early on, regaling her kindergarten teacher and classmates with quirky drawings of bird-people, animal-castles and the like. She developed a fondness for medieval art, the hallucinatory vision of Bosch, and the works of Expressionists like Max Beckmann and Erich Heckel. For a while, she considered becoming a veterinarian but ultimately chose art, a decision that would channel her fondness for animals into the human-critter mashups and other zoological presences that haunt her work. Enrolled at Giebichenstein Castle, an art and design university, she encountered the medium of woodblocks and knew she had found her discipline.

“It is primarily the resistance of the material I like. One is forced to work slowly,” she explains. The deliberate, unhurried pace allows her “to dream and to associate freely,” inviting complexities into her images.

The slowness of working in woodblocks also allows her to resist the dizzying rush of modern life. “Everything is getting faster,” she says. “Media communication, dissemination of information, transport” and even “the creation and reception of art.” By adopting a less-frenzied rhythm, “I step out of the power of the masses. I gain distance,” she adds.

Working in woodcuts led her to the medium of the papercut. “Common to both techniques” is the separation of “darkness from light,” she points out.

“The restriction to black and white I find reassuring,” she says, noting that for her, the binary color scheme is “to some extent a response to the profusion of colorful and moving images with which one is confronted in everyday life, but now also in art. . . . [an] attempt to give the eye time to rest and the head space to think.”

In general, she does not subscribe to a more-is-more aesthetic. Speaking of her fondness for medieval artworks that depict simplified, stylized figures and a non-naturalistic perspective, she observes that “too much perfection can quickly make art unapproachable.”

By the way, it is pure coincidence that her two cats, Mio and Flecki, share her works’ streamlined two-toned palette.

“One is all black, the other white with black spots,” she says of them. “So they are very close to my images. But that was not planned.”

A multiyear project

When pianist Ikuyo Nagata and violinist Reiko Watanabe spun out delicate phrases of Chopin in a concert at the Japanese ambassador’s residence Aug. 13, they weren’t merely pleasing the ears of a rapt audience, they were also bringing a multiyear classical music project full circle.

Included in the repertoire, which was presented by the Japanese Embassy and its Japan Information and Culture Center in collaboration with the Library of Congress, was Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye’s 1916 arrangement of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. The original manuscript of the none-too-well-known arrangement for piano and violin, marked up by Ysaye (1858-1931) with annotations and crossings-out, resides at the Library of Congress.

Nagata is an enthusiastic champion of Ysaye’s version of the Ballade. Indeed, she spent three years deciphering and editing the manuscript, a task that sometimes required the use of a magnifying glass, she says. Her edited version of the score was recently released by a Japanese publisher. On the heels of that achievement, she had traveled to Washington — home of the manuscript — to perform the piece with Watanabe.

Watanabe, who hails from Tokyo, played a 1725 Stradivarius; Nagata, born in southwest Japan, was performing on a Steinway. Not far from the musicians, a glass-topped case displayed the Ballade manuscript, whose jottings and scribblings-out testified to the ideas Ysaye developed, second-guessed, rejected and revised during the course of composition, observed David Plylar, a Library of Congress music specialist who contributed scholarly insights to the evening.

In an interview after the concert — which also included Ysaye’s “Rêve d’Enfant,” J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 for violin in E major and other pieces — Nagata said, through a translator, that her first glimpse of the Chopin/Ysaye manuscript, which she’d heard about in Japan and sought out from experts at the Library of Congress, left her “very much moved.” The incorporation of the violin, in her view, works numerable subtle and beautiful changes in the timbre of the piece, which Chopin had written for piano alone.

Watanabe has also become a fan of the Chopin/Ysaye Ballade. The violinist, who has two degrees from Juilliard, did express one slight caveat: From a string-instrument standpoint, the piece is technically tricky. “You have to practice a lot,” she said wryly.


Wren is a freelance writer.

“ApocalyptiCAT: Woodcuts and Papercuts by Franca Bartholomaei” Aug. 27-Oct. 10, FotoGalerie of the Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 Seventh St. NW. Visit www.goethe.de/washington
or call 202-289-1200.