May 8, 2012

Self-Referential Block Prints

        There are lots of movies about actors, right?  Well, sometimes block printmakers make block prints about block printmaking, too.  Here are a few that illustrate the relief print carving experience.
        The first is Der Formschneider (the Woodcutter) by Jost Amman from 1568.  According to Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971, this is a self-portrait of Amman cutting his own design.  That means that although in his illustration he's identifying himself as the carver only, he's also the artist, which makes him much more comparable to later relief print artists who design and cut their own blocks.
        Compare Amman's self-portrait to this one by Frans Masereel from 1927.  While Amman looks
intent, absorbed, and hard at work, Masereel seems to be in a slump.  It looks to me like he's feeling stumped by the blank paper that's fallen to the floor at his feet and the blank wood block in front of him.  This block tells a full story because it shows us not just the artist's lack of inspiration that's directly portrayed, but also the solution he eventually came up with: to illustrate his own situation.  It doesn't get more self-referential than that.  (Actually, I don't know whether this is a self-portrait or an illustration of a different character, but I'd be very surprised if it wasn't autobiographical in spirit!)
        In his picture Amman carves a woodcut (with the grain on planks) while Masereel shows himself working on a wood engraving (on end-grain).  Here's a much more detailed wood engraving of wood engraving, by Howard Phipps.  It illustrates all the elements of the process, from the chunks of wood, to the tools, and the block resting on its sandbag, detailed carving nearly finished.
        A different selection of tools are shown by Mary Azarian in her series of small woodcuts.  Compare the mushroom-handled wood engraving tools in Phipps and Masereel's pictures to the long-handled woodcutting tools used by Azarian and Amman.
        I suppose everyone finds the tools of their trade beautiful, and perhaps especially so when they're portrayed in their own medium.  I enjoy
these, even if I have no plans to do any self-referential block prints myself.

[Pictures:  Der Formschneider, woodcut by Jost Amman in Panoplia, 1568;
Untitled? woodcut by Frans Masereel in Die Sonne, 1927 (image from Art of the Print);
Wood Engraving, wood engraving by Howard Phipps (image from Rowley Gallery);
Carving tools, Brayer, Ink, and Printing press, woodcuts by Mary Azarian from The Four Seasons of Mary Azarian, (pub. by David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 2000).]

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