March 4, 2024

Helbig's Holzschnitte

         Walter Helbig (Germany/Switzerland, 1897-1968) was active during that artistic ferment of the Brücke, Neue Secession, and Blaue Reiter groups, and he even took part in the first Dada exhibition in Zurich.  Indeed, he continued to work with all kinds of new artistic movements until his death in 1968.  Today, though, I have a selection of wood block prints from a portfolio of 16 wood block prints that were made in the 19-teens and twenties.  These 
particular pieces are strongly influenced by German Expressionism and Die Brücke, which means that on the whole I like the people less than the other subjects.
        My favorite is this scene of a cluster of houses, with its strong black and white, clean geometry, and rougher, more organic rocks and trees.  The landscape is also fun, looking almost diagrammatic with tiers of simplified hills and trees.
        I have included two people, however.  The first is entitled “Sermon for the Birds,” which may be St Francis.  I really like the birds, especially in the lower left, but what I really like is the light.  Although Helbig has placed a sun up in the upper right, the real light comes from the top center, where it seems to shine from behind the man’s head and upraised hand.
        The second person is “The Artist.”  I can’t help laughing at this depiction of an artist so clearly confused and beset by so much going on.  Are these external distractions interfering with his work, or is he overrun with too many ideas all clamoring to be created?  It’s certainly an interesting image and I can’t help assuming it must be somewhat autobiographical.
        I’ve included one last piece from Helbig’s portfolio: the table of contents, also a wood block print.  Carving all the little letters for all the words is never easy, and these come out with a nice balance between clear legibility and hand-carved quirkiness.  I always wonder what makes someone choose to carve a page of text like this when there are 
certainly easier ways to do it!  But it is undoubtedly fun for us to see it this way.

[Pictures: Häuser, woodcut 1911;

Landschaft, woodcut 1912;

Vogelpredigt, woodcut 1916;

Der Künstler, woodcut 1918;

Table of Contents, 1926, all woodcuts by Walter Helbig from 16 Holzschitte (Images from MoMA).]

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