In the last quarter of the 19th century, Germany witnessed a boom in industrial development. The immediate consequences were the emergence of the capitalists on the one hand, and the working-class on the other. This socio-economic hierarchy lead to financial speculation and vast disparities in wealth. As a result, the urban working class suffered from mental health issues, as well as illnesses such as tuberculosis and bronchitis.
Edvard Munch(1863-1944) was born into an economically deprived family, and witnessed the death of many siblings. This had a lasting impression on his work. Munch was very experimental in his approach towards woodcut, preferring to employ the tactile quality of the surface in his prints.
The ‘Angst’ is a black and white woodcut print. The working classes are delineated with powerful, expressive gouging in white against a black mysterious landscape. The portraits are non-representational, becoming the central point of attraction because of their expressive eyes. He was a true predecessor of the German Expressionists.
Woodcut on Japanese paper
45.9 X 37.8 cm
Reproduction makes everything affordable! The invention of printing technology facilitated access to books for marginalized communities. Woodblock printed books first emerged in Europe in the late 14th century. These books comprised rudimentary black and white religious images in relief, usually illustrating a short text. They were often employed as teaching aids by the priests to proliferate Christianity amongst the common people.
Being a political cartoonist and illustrator, the Flemish artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972) reacted to the standardization of social classification. Masereel is regarded as the pioneer of the modern woodcut novel. By taking advantage of the reproductive possibilities of printmaking, he employed graphic novels as a catalyst to facilitate direct interaction between the art and the viewers. His novels strictly contain black and white woodcut prints excluding text.
‘Book of Hours’ is a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. The book was hilariously reappropriated and recreated by Frans Masereel in the context of post-World War I. His ‘Book of Hours’ is the allegorical narrative of his protagonist’s journey into a modern city, and does not progress towards a parable. ‘The Urination’ is one among the illustrations from his ‘Book of Hours’. Masereel enrols his protagonist to ludicrously criticize urbanization and the bourgeoisie by ejecting a hefty stream of urine on the city from atop the highrises. The entire composition is rendered in sharp black and white contrast. The substantial figure of the protagonist is delineated in bold yet spontaneous gouging against the cityscape.
The Urination, 1922
Woodcut on paper
13.5 X 20.5 cm
“When you’re lying in your sleep,….And you wake from your dreams to go dancing with the dead.” The Dance of Death, an allegorical notion in Christianity, manifests the occurrence of death as equal and inevitable in all individuals. The skeleton that lies beneath the skin, reveals itself by and by. The concept originated in the 14th century as Europe witnessed the apocalyptic vision, the carnival of death that befell the human race with the onset of the Black Plague.
Hans Holbein was born in Augsburg, in 1495/96, into a family of artists. He was deeply inspired by the secular and the picturesque genius of Burgkmaier, the great artist of Augsburg. He started practicing wood-engraving in Basel, designing title pages, illustrations, and initial letters in the medium for books to earn his living.
It is said in the Bible that every soul is equal before God. Holbein models his Death on this belief as a metaphorical representation against social injustice. In a series of 34 prints, Death leads people from different social strata to their salvation with a special treatment for each individual. It tends to appear that the wealthy and powerful are treated with extra aggression, while the underprivileged with extra care. For instance, the Advocate is under the surveillance of Death while receiving bribes from the rich and ignoring the poor. On the contrary, Death leads the old woman in a joyful procession to release her from a life of toil. Hans Lützelburger’s skilled engraving infuses life into Holbein’s ‘The Dance of Death’ series.
Hans Holbein the Younger
From ‘The Dance of Death’
The Advocate (1523-25)
The Old Woman (1523-25)
Wood engravingEngraver: Hans Lützelburger
After almost Thirty-one years of governing, Mexican President Porfirio Díaz Mori and his government came under threat by the civil revolt in the first half of the 20th century. President Díaz was keen on developing Mexico into an industrial country. He allocated lands of the poor Mexicans to non-residential capitalists for industrial construction. As a result, a mass population endured great hardship to ensure their livelihood and took up arms against the government.
José Guadalupe Posada Aguilar (1852–1913) is regarded as the most influential printmaker of Mexico and best known for the wood engraving he published in broadsides. Relief printmaking is regarded as the most inexpensive, democratic, and immediately reproducible among other printmaking mediums. Therefore he triggered relief printmaking as a nonviolent weapon, against the government to arouse revolutionary fervour amongst the common masses. He rejected the traditional norms of exclusive editions in printmaking and mass-produced his compositions on cheap newsprints to distribute throughout the country.
Calaveras or skull, an important symbol in ancient Mexican culture, associated with the event the Day of the Death. It is the celebration of mortality that no one could escape but to greet Death as a friend. Aguilar recontextualized this iconic symbol sometimes associated with a vain skeleton to express the political and social crisis of his time. The above image is one of the archetypal examples of his wood-engraving, portraying the proletariat as skeletons. Aguilar’s distinct skill of engraving is delineated in the networks of fine lines he created to achieve modulation in skeletons and surroundings.
José Guadalupe Posada Aguilar
Skeletons as artisans
12 x 19 cm
The very process of artistic creation is an integrated effort of intellectuality and the physical act of making! Pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris manifested this ideology to challenge the hierarchical function between artist and artisan. Taking inspiration from Morris’s manifesto, the Bauhaus movement came into existence in 1919, as a catalyst to redefine the purpose of art in everyday life.
Josef Albers (1888-1976) was born in Germany, into a family of artisans. He started his career as a teacher at the Bauhaus School of Design. Grounded upon the Bauhaus manifesto, Josef experimented with geomantic abstraction in various branches of visual art.
Josef was particularly interested in employing varying surfaces in relief printmaking. To realize the different textual and spatial effects, he obtained prints from both conventional and unconventional surfaces including plywood, linoleum sheet, and even from cork. ‘Involute’ is a relief impression from a cork matrix on Kozo paper. Josef shows distinct skill in gouging, formulating an organic form in fluid white lines against a black background.
Cork relief on kozo paper
28.9 x 45.1 cm
In the first quarter of the 20th century, Europe was ascending towards modernism, politically, culturally, and in warfare. A number of creative movements emerged in Europe, the German Expressionist movement being one amongst them. It ushered in a new perspective in art through printmaking. Relief printmaking became the most important mode of expression for them. The German Expressionist movement initiated different ideologies to challenge the role of art in daily life, rejected the classical style, and accepted simplified, real-life distorted forms and subjects to express different shades of human emotion.
Käthe Kollwitz lost her son in the First World War. Being a mother, the pain she experienced led her to portray the mourning of women and the working classes. She is best known for her figurative black and white woodcuts. Some of her prints were also used in posters to protest against different social issues.
‘Widow II’ is from the famous woodcut portfolio Krieg (War), comprised of a total of seven prints. It is about those who lost their loved ones in the war. A corpse-like female figure with a baby on her chest is delineated in stark contrasts of white against black, creating a sensation of doom. Käthe shows distinct skill in gouging, creating networks of lines to achieve details in the limbs. This print is the apocalyptic imagery of the consequences of war on mankind.
widow II, 1922.
Woodcut on paper
30 X 53 cm
Printmaking as a form of visual art emerged from early printing technology. Possibilities of mechanical reproduction in printmaking have enhanced the power of the print as a functional object or tool that shapes or affects public view and discourse. Originating in China in 220 AD, woodblock printing became the popular Chinese art form for more than a millennium. However, it was considered craftsmanship rather than art. The reason perhaps was the divide between the designers and blockmakers.
The introduction of Marxism to China in the 20th century brought new possibilities and hope to Chinese society, that paved the way to a cultural revolution. To reach the masses, Chinese artists reappropriated woodcut, as it was inexpensive and easily reproducible. Chinese progressive artists adopted the Western aesthetic of the ‘original print’ in woodcut to arouse revolutionary fervour amongst the illiterate Chinese people. During the 20th-century several woodcut groups were formed, such as MK Research Society, Peking-Tianjin Woodcut Research Society, etc.
‘Celebrate the Surrender of Japan and the Victory of China’ is a black & white woodcut print by Li Hua. The entire composition is delineated with the sharp contrast of theatrical light and shadow. The artist employed a simplified consolidated outline and expressive gouging, rejecting the traditional line drawing commonly seen in Chinese woodcut illustrations.
‘Celebrate the Surrender of Japan and the Victory of China’, 1946.
Woodcut on paper
20 X 27 cm
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched the nonviolent Satyagraha movement with the march to Dandi. It was to significantly protest against the crushing salt taxes imposed on the Indian people by the British Government.
The Artist and the Art
Nandalal Bose, regarded as the father of modern Indian printmaking, produced this linocut print ‘Bapuji’ to mark this moment in history. The iconic black and white linocut is the archetypal example of the relief printmaking process, where Bapuji is rendered in white lines against a black background. His firm muscles represent the strength of his convictions, and his dynamic stride the hope of a nation. To achieve a solid black he chose lino rather than wood.
Linocut on paper
29.2 × 17.8 cm
“Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” – William Wordsworth
In the 19th century, internal migration was the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. People started shifting from rural areas to large cities in search of a better living, paving the way to urbanization. But a group of creative minds still believed in nature and looked back into primitivity. To them, Nature was the fundamental unitary principal requisite to reality. Even the fundamental principle of modern art is deeply rooted in this primitive embodiment.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is acknowledged as one of the most prominent painters of the Post-Impressionist period in French art. Based in Paris, and surrounded by Western intricacies, Gauguin always dreamed of a land, where people are not obsessed with materialistic needs and live a simple life in the lap of nature. In search of his dreamland, Gauguin traveled to Tahiti in the Polynesian Islands in 1891. Returning to Paris, he started documenting his experiences to contextualize his new body of works to the civilized world. Nearly forty years after his death, these writings were published as a travel journal titled ‘Noa Noa’, which means ‘a fragrant scent’.
The ‘Noa Noa’ consists of a total of ten black and white woodcut prints. Influenced by the primitive craft of wood engraving of Tahiti, the artist employed woodcut as a medium to portray his new theme. ‘The Devil Speaks’ is one amongst these ten. The composition narrates a mystical night of primitive ritual. The human figures are silhouetted against a bonfire. The fire is delineated in white in stark contrast to a black background. The shadows in middle tone are achieved by scratching thin lines using sandpaper, enlivening the ambiguousness of the entire composition.
The Devil Speaks
Woodcut on paper
Printed by Pola Gaugin.
10 ½ X 16 ¼ inch
“Sonar fosol folay je, tar duibela jotena aahar” or “the one who nurtures a golden harvest, is himself deprived of two square meals a day”. A popular lyric from the movie ‘Heerak Rajar Deshe’ directed by Satyajit Ray.
In the mid-20th century, farmers were compelled to share a large portion of their harvest with their landlords. In 1946, the sharecroppers of Bengal protested against this traditional system, demanding two-thirds of the produce as their share. This movement came to be known as the ‘Tebhaga Andolan’, ‘tebhaga’ literally meaning ‘three portions’. The Krishak Sabha of the Communist Party of India’s Bengal Administration led the movement. Gradually this revolutionary fervor spread across Bengal.
Somenath Hore (1921-2006) is one of India’s prominent printmakers. He conceptually appropriates the aesthetics of printmaking mediums to portray the struggle and suffering of the proletariat. He was closely associated with the Communist Party in his youth, which paved the way to his close encounters with the common people. One such experience is documented in numerous sketches in his ‘Tebhaga Diary’. He was assigned by the Communist Party as an artist –journalist to travel to North Bengal to document the movement.
Nearly six years after the movement, these diaries were published as a travel journal titled ‘Tebhaga: An Artist’s Diary and Sketchbook’. Hore transfigured some of his sketches into wood engravings to publish them as illustrations. The above image is one amongst these illustrations, portraying a night meeting of the Krishak Sabha. Hore brilliantly rendered illuminating effects on the portraits, gouging networks of sharp lines, and chiseling them out of the darkness. The work expresses hope and excitement for a new beginning. The entire composition is delineated with the sharp contrasts of theatrical light and shadow.
“How many miles must we march…How many miles must we march…”Thousands of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometers in the scorching heat to return to their villages. India witnessed this catastrophic phenomenon when the first lockdown was declared by the Government on 24th March 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of them could not survive the hardship and suffered tragic deaths en route to home. Though this occurred in India, this defining image of grief, anguish, and mortality of the proletariat is universal.
Born and brought up in Santiniketan, Suranjan Basu graduated from Kala Bhavana and went on to MSU, Vadodara for postgraduate studies. He returned to his roots at Kala Bhavana, where he taught for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he died very young. Taking inspiration from Käthe Kollwitz and Somnath Hore’s works, he was conceptually deeply rooted in the realism of social classification and policies.
Labourers eating on the sidewalk is often seen across urban and periurban areas in India. Basu tries to portray this social inequality in his art, especially in large-scale woodcuts. The ‘Lunchbreak’ is an example of the same. Three mournful human figures are rendered against a construction site. His formal approach towards human figures is delineated with the substantial musculature of the limbs, representing the working classes. There is no stark contrast of black and white. Rather, the entire composition is circumambient in a gloomy middle tone. Basu achieved this by gouging networks of lines, dots, and by employing the tactile quality of wood in his print.
26 x 24 inches.
Namrata Menon: Is it only a cartographer’s line that divides geographical location or something terrifying hidden beneath that line? In August 1947, after three hundred years of British domination in India, the Colonisers finally retreated with a final blow – the Partition. Erstwhile India was divided into two independent nations, Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. As a result, a mass migration of populations took place across the new borders.
Zarina Hashmi was born in Aligarh in 1937. She was only ten when her family migrated to Lahore. For the rest of her life, she was in search of defining borders through her art practice, especially in woodcuts. Her approach was minimal and often contains bits of Urdu calligraphy.
A contorted vertical line printed with black ink on handmade paper dividing the space is a woodcut print by Zarina, titled ‘Dividing Line’. Nobody could determine which side belongs to which nation. There was little distinction in culture or religion. Only a stark black division, standing alone against a white background as witness to loss. Loss of life, belongings, and memories.
Dividing line, 2001.
Woodcut on Handmade paper
65 X 51 cm