Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now

November 9, 2008 - February 8, 2009

close Luis Collazo
America Latina, Unete! (Latin America, Unite!)

Woodcut, 33-7/8 x 87-1/2 inches (image); 38-1/4 x 91-3/8 inches (sheet). Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Maurice Zeitlin. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now examines the woodcut in terms of its diverse forms and uses in the modern era. A thematic survey, it invites parallels between the medium in countries as diverse and geographically distant Mexico, France and Korea. Woodblock printing is, in fact, one of the most common artistic practices throughout the world. Although the motivations of each artist and the circumstances in which the woodcuts were made may differ greatly, the visual character of the gouge cuts is a defining thread among the selected works in this exhibition.


In its most basic form, the making of a woodcut requires just a block of wood, a cutting tool known as a gouge, some ink, and a sheet of paper. The birth of the woodcut can be traced back to the eighth century when Buddhist monks in Japan and China developed this basic printing practice to reproduce devotional texts. It did not establish itself in Europe until the beginning of the fifteenth century, reaching a technical and artistic apogee as a fine art medium in the hands of German master Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Although the medium evolved thereafter, especially with the introduction of color to the chiaroscuro woodcut, it fell out of favor towards the end of the Renaissance. While the woodcut continued to be a common source for the dissemination of biblical and folk scenes, intaglio printing techniques (such as etching and engraving) were considered to be more sophisticated means of aesthetic communication. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the woodcut served primarily to illustrate street banners and broadsides or as reproductions in popular journals and calendars. It was partly this popular aspect of woodcuts, together with their organic quality and an easy accessibility to the natural materials, which lured artists back to the technique towards the end of the nineteenth century. Paul Gauguin and his contemporaries in France rediscovered the pure, untainted character of the woodcut and set the stage for a host of artists who experimented with the medium thereafter. The woodcut’s archaic yet versatile qualities nourished its evolution throughout the twentieth century, and the technique continues to take new directions within the contemporary studio.


About the Exhibition

By Allegra Pesenti



The works in this section trace the woodcut’s emergence as a modern medium, but a modern medium that retains a primal energy and ancient purity of form. Émile Bernard’s Christ on the Cross (ca. 1890–91) is a daring print for its time. Few nineteenth-century artists had made woodcuts as independent works of art, and none had been quite so explicit in exposing the wood itself. A radical departure in the history of printmaking occurred when artists such as Bernard chose to favor the textures and imperfections of the plank itself and to incorporate them into their designs. The woodcut was no longer a poorer version of the engraving, nor did it aspire to look like one, but instead it became the vehicle for an entirely new and spontaneous graphic language. Paul Gauguin was a pivotal figure in this phase of aggressive innovation. An adventurous, irascible soul, Gauguin displayed a deep nonconformist attitude, eager curiosity, and yearning passion for the natural and the supernatural, all of which contributed to his momentous woodcut creations. Te Atua (1893–1894) is one of a series of prints the artist made in Paris after his return from Tahiti in 1893. It was intended for publication in Noa Noa (the Tahitian word for fragrance), a visual diary of his experiences on the island. The smoky, chiaroscuro effects in this early proof were achieved by variously inking and wiping the block. Working freely on the wood, Gauguin molded the desired tones that would best render the moody spirits and cavernous enclaves of the island. More


Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now is made possible by a major gift from Susan Steinhauser and Daniel Greenberg, Ruth Greenberg and the Greenberg Foundation.  

The exhibition is also generously supported by Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Barbara Timmer and Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer.

Additional funding is provided by Anawalt Lumber Co., The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Astrid and Howard Preston, the International Fine Print Dealers Association, Bobbie and Robert Greenfield, and Patricia and Richard Waldron. 


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