Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 5, 2018
Naoko Takahatake The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy Exh. cat. Los Angeles, New York, and Munich: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2018. 288 pp.; 295 color ills. Hardcover $60.00 (9783791357393)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 3–September 16, 2018; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, October 14, 2018–January 20, 2019
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Installation view, The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, LACMA, Los Angeles, June 3–September 16, 2018 (photograph © 2018; provided by LACMA)

The chiaroscuro woodcut has always occupied an awkward and somewhat uncertain place in the history of prints. The technique employs multiple superimposed woodblock impressions in different colors to create printed images with tonal variation. Although the technique was developed by Lucas Cranach, Hans Burgkmair, and Hans Baldung Grien in Germany in the early years of the sixteenth century, most chiaroscuro woodcuts were produced in Italy. Between ca. 1516 and 1610, it is estimated that approximately two hundred such woodcuts were produced in Venice, Rome, and elsewhere on the Italian peninsula. Even allowing that there may be a number of lost works—a number of the prints are known in only one or two examples—chiaroscuro woodcuts were clearly a very small part of the immense graphic production of the sixteenth century. The generally erudite subject matter and the high cost implied by the technically complex and time-consuming process suggest that these were refined prints for a relatively small group of collectors.

This exhibition, shown first at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and then at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, is the first major presentation of chiaroscuro woodcuts to audiences in the United States. Organized by Naoko Takahatake of LACMA, the show presents the material in six more or less chronological groupings associated with the printmakers Ugo da Carpi, the collaboration of Parmigianino, Ugo, and Antonio da Trento, Niccolò Vicentino, Domenico Beccafumi, and Andrea Andreani. The final section examines the dissemination of the technique. Of these figures, only Parmigianino and Beccafumi are likely to be familiar to early modern art historians generally, and Ugo will be familiar to those interested in the graphic arts. The others will very likely be entirely new names. Each was one of the essential producers of chiaroscuro woodcuts, and each worked in some form of collaboration with a more familiar painter, such as Titian or Raphael. Ugo and Antonio da Trento worked more closely with Parmigianino than with other painters, and Beccafumi is unique as a painter for cutting his own chiaroscuro woodblocks.

The catalogue, beautifully illustrated with full-color images, is an important addition to the literature on printing. Takahatake, who edited the volume, provides an orientation to the world of chiaroscuro woodcuts. This ranges from the nature of early modern publishing to specific technical information. The fluid movement from the historical to the technical is essential, for the woodcuts are generally so poorly documented that material evidence is often our best source of knowledge in differentiating the major workshops, earlier and later impressions, and many other aspects of their production and use.

The technical interest found throughout the catalogue culminates in a section by Linda Stiber Morenus on “Recreating the Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcut.” This corresponds to a section of the exhibition, but in the publication it is curiously separated from the other essays, located after the catalogue entries and before an appendix documenting watermarks. Using historical materials, Stiber Morenus isolated the variables involved in relief printing, which required using wet and dry paper, more and less pressure, tackier ink than usual, and so on. Paper was typically moistened before printing. It would expand while wet and then shrink while drying. This posed no problems for printing with a single block. However, when printing with multiple blocks that must register at a uniform scale, the challenges were substantial, for the subsequent blocks might not align with the marks already made on the paper. Printing on dry paper would solve this problem, but at the cost of a less uniform line or field of ink, as the texture of the paper would often leave gaps. Printing all the blocks immediately after moistening the paper solved the problem of paper shrinkage and uneven marks from dry paper, but it introduced other issues as the inks blend and create new tones that are not easily controlled. These and other experiments demonstrate the degree to which chiaroscuro printmakers were technical innovators using a woodblock medium that to scholars (and to many contemporaries) has often seemed increasingly archaic over the course of the sixteenth century.

Peter Parshall lays out the origins and background of the Italian chiaroscuro woodcut, pointing variously to the chiaroscuro prints made in 1507 and 1508 by Cranach and Burgkmair, multi-block woodcuts from the later fifteenth century that approximated the effect of hand-colored prints, and to the refined drawings with heightening on colored paper produced by Hugo van der Goes, Baldung, Andrea Mantegna, and others in the later fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth. The chiaroscuro woodcut was, to some degree, a hybrid of these processes that appealed to a small market of collectors identified by Ugo and his successors.

Antony Griffiths points out that eighteenth-century collectors routinely thought of chiaroscuro woodcuts as facsimiles of drawings. Although this notion has had a long afterlife and has often shaped the interpretation of the prints, it is problematic because few Italian draftsmen working after Ugo began his production around 1516 drew in a comparable tonal manner. How then did the producers and buyers of these images understand them? Recognizing that Raphael provided drawings for prints (both for Ugo and for Marcantonio Raimondi, with whom he worked much more closely) as well as for paintings, architecture, and metalwork, none of which can be considered a reproduction of a drawing and all of which resulted in a wildly different final product, Griffiths sees the chiaroscuro woodcut as something distinct. Although art history has struggled to classify it as anything other than an unusual form of woodcut, the unique qualities of the prints might themselves have generated fascination on the part of collectors who had never seen anything quite like it.

Both Parshall and Griffiths address the relationship of these prints to drawings. This issue is taken up directly by Jonathan Bober. The central problem addressed in various ways by all three authors is that although the prints look remarkably like a small set of refined drawings, there is little evidence of the systematic collecting of drawings before the middle of the sixteenth century. There was thus no substantial market for drawings, and, presumably, no market for prints that look like drawings. When Ugo began work in the second decade of the sixteenth century, there was a growing and eager market for prints, but this was above all for the kinds of refined engravings and woodcuts exemplified by Albrecht Dürer’s works, some of which were copied for the Italian market by Marcantonio. Rather than work around the similarities to drawings, Bober proposes instead that there was meaningful collecting of drawings in Italy earlier than has generally been supposed, evidenced in part by artists, beginning with Giulio Romano, regularly producing replicas of their own drawings that cannot be explained simply as preparatory works or records of compositions. Although Ugo’s first prints predate even this development, it suggests an ongoing relationship of prints and drawings beyond the issue of reproductive printmaking, which has been much questioned. Further research in this area might sharpen our understanding of the early collecting of both prints and drawings.

The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy is an important exhibition, and LACMA and the National Gallery should be applauded for taking it on. LACMA has emphasized modern and contemporary art in recent years—and, indeed, the Resnick Pavilion in which the exhibition was mounted is better suited to large-scale modern sculpture than to small, delicate prints—but the museum has outstanding early modern holdings and exceptional works in the graphic arts that deserve to be seen more often.

Kristoffer Neville
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Riverside

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.