Woodcut (aka Xylography, gr. ξύλον — tree, γρᾰ́φω — write) is the oldest type of engraving, a printing technique, in which artists carve their drawing on a wooden board. The wood density and structure, the fiber resistance during cutting determine the line thickness and smoothness. The woodcut artist removes the “white” areas of the image, which should be absent in the print. Then the artist applies paint to the board with a swab or roller, covers the protruding areas with colour, puts a sheet of paper and presses it with a press. The wood engraving is ready.
The method appeared in China and the countries of the Ancient East in the 6th and 7th centuries, a century later it penetrated into Japan, and after five centuries it reached Europe. Block printing became the first woodcut technique: the artist cut off the line of the drawing on both sides and black strokes “dominated” on the paper. In the 15th century, with the development of book printing, the tone woodcut method appeared, when image carrier did not wear out after tens of thousands of prints: the drawing was applied to a cross-section of a tree and the hard material ideally preserved and transmitted tiny details of the carving. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Venetian Hugo da Carpi used a separate printing board for each shade of paint, and now the art history remembers him as the inventor of colour woodcut. In the second half of the 20th century, the technique lost its popularity and was preserved in individual author’s works.
The largest European master of woodcuts was Albrecht Dürer, who developed a recognizable artistic language with hard expressive lines and knotty curls. His paintings of the Apocalypse series, The Life of Mary and Great Passions are the pinnacle of woodblock printing and unsurpassed masterpieces of graphic art. The works by the German Hans Holbein the Younger from the Dance of Death series surprise with their carving elegance. However, the indisputable leadership in the art of woodcut belongs to Japanese artists. In the 18th century, Suzuki Harunobu became an oriental discoverer and master of colour engraving; he enriched his technique with a variety of colours and shades, and won hearts with his magical female images from the Eight Parlour Views series. The epoch of fine Japanese woodcuts began. In Utagawa Hiroshige’s engravings, it is easy to see his mastery of colour printing technique and understand the future passion of Vincent van Gogh for the artist’s works. The Plum Park in Kameido, Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake, Irises in Horikiri are familiar stories for connoisseurs of European post-impressionism.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the engraving art fell into decay, and artists looked for a way to improve the woodcutting techniques. The Englishman Thomas Bewick managed to supplant etching and metal carving, and thus revolutionized the printing graphics. Books about nature with woodcuts by Bewick, A General History of Quadrupeds and The History of British Birds delight with plastic and expressive design, and withstand dozens of reprints for the second century in a row. At the beginning of the 20th century, a sickly young Dutchman failed to fulfil his dream of becoming an architect. In the annals of engraving and woodcuts, the name of Maurits Cornelis Escher, the creator of breathtaking images with space turned inside out, appeared. Escher’s graphics combined mathematical principles, optical illusion, and non-Euclidean geometry. Scientists illustrate article on crystallography with the works of the author. Spectators are happy to immerse themselves in the “impossible” world of the artist and wander in the labyrinths of the Picture Gallery 1956, Belvedere 1958 and Waterfall 1961. Woodcuts have found application not only in art: while European artists illustrated the Bible, and merchants paid off with sacks of gold and silver, in 1107 in the Chinese province of Sichuan, engravers printed the first paper money in history.
Famous woodcuts: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 1496, The Angel with the Key to the Bottomless Pit 1511 by Albrecht Dürer; Adoration of the Shepherds 1540, Six Saints 1553 by Tiziano Vecellio; One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series 1857 by Utagawa Hiroshige; Still Life and Street 1937, Day and Night 1938 by Maurits Cornelis Escher; Illustrations for the Divine Comedy 1964 by Salvador Dalí.
Albrecht Dürer, Tiziano Vecellio, Suzuki Harunobu, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Hiroshige, Maurits Cornelis Escher, Salvador Dalí, Roy Lichtenstein.