December 11, 2015

Three Cities

        Three relief prints from the first half of the twentieth century, depicting scenes from three US cities, by three artists.  From 1930, this view of Chicago by William Jacobs (USA, 1897-1973) is bold and blocky.  The buildings and trains are depicted mostly in solid blacks and whites without texture, with the sky’s rays for dynamic contrast.  Even the puffs of smoke from the trains look solid and muscular.  With its bold, clean cuts, the whole thing exemplifies an optimism about the bright future of progress.
        By contrast, this view of Beacon Hill in Boston, made by Thomas Nason (USA, 1889-1971) seems to show the city as old, staid, and tired.  This is a wood engraving, and the careful, tiny cuts that make up the piece emphasize the worn texture of the buildings, and the long shadow across the square.  Where Jacobs had smoke-puffing trains, Nason has a bent tree, and vines climbing the buildings.  The two pieces were made the same year by artists who were close contemporaries of each other, so it’s interesting to see how different were their styles, Jacobs embracing modern art movements, and Nason mastering traditional techniques.
        The third cityscape, from 1940-5 seems to emphasize neither the optimism of the future nor the shadow of the past, but the cluttered, busy, present.  It’s messier, or choppier than either of the other two, with shapes superimposed and sometimes askew.  The artist, Henry Kallem (USA 1912-1985) has gone a step less realistic than the other two.
        I like that all three artists have different styles, and show different moods of different cities.  While they all use the wood carving medium with its distinctive properties, they each emphasize different qualities of the medium and use it to different effect.

[Pictures: Chicago, woodcut by William Jacobs, 1930 (Image from chicagomodern.org);
Louisburg Square, Beacon Hill, Boston, wood engraving by Thomas Nason, 1930 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints);
Manhattan, woodcut by Henry Kallem, 1940-45 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints).]

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