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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Lithograph And The Woodcut

( Originally Published 1932 )



One of the most interesting subjects in the media of "black and white" is the lithograph. Lithography is the Cinderella of the graphic arts. We, as a nation, have appallingly bad taste in selecting the choice groups out of the general subject "black and white". Little do we appreciate the magnificent silvery quality which a lithograph can give. It doesn't seem possible that, in the formative years since 1 goo, we have actually had the theory impregnated in our minds that everything done in black and white should have contrasts in deep colors associated with it. This condition prevails to such an extent that it is no mean feat for a dealer to sell a lithograph.

There must be a reason for such a devastatingly bad succession of erroneous opinions, regarding this singular subject, and yet to find its root would be impossible. It is only fitting to say that, all in all, salable lithographs are those with extraordinarily popular names such as George Bellows, Joseph Pennell and Daumier attached to them.

A lithograph is a natural drawing, one in which the eye's immediate perceptions guide the growing work little by little. In etching or engraving, the raised lines of the engraved design are filled in with printer's ink and the print is pressed or lifted off. In a lithograph, the design, intact, on the flat surface of the stone or plate, is transferred from it to paper and is an original autographic drawing. The eye and mind have not been forced to a natural dissociation; in other words, there is a straightforward process which is in contrast to the reverse in etching and engraving.

About 1800 there lived in Bavaria a man by the name of Aloys Senefelder, who wrote verses in music in an amateurish sort of way. Senefelder was desirous of finding a means of printing his scores in a less expensive manner than any available to him at that time. Hence he began to experiment with etching and engraving and finally evolved the process known to-day as lithography.

Lithographic prints may be divided into five classes: No. 1-washed, No. 2-scraped, No. 3-done with pen, No. 4-done on paper and transferred, and No. 5-made with crayon on the stone itself. The last two, especially the latter, are the ones which are to be considered seriously. The others are too technical and varied to bear note. Senefelder advocated the use of paper for artists, saying it was probably the most important part of his discovery. The paper with the drawing on it is slightly dampened, laid face downward upon the lithographic stone and passed through the press. The fat and grease are extracted from the drawing by the stone and the design is seen when the paper is removed.

The other popular method: the artist draws with a chalk composed partly of a greasy substance upon a specially prepared stone called Solenhofen stone. When the drawing has been completed, it is washed over with a solution of acid to fix the chalk drawing. It is next dampened with distilled water, which penetrates the stone. When the roller containing greasy ink passes over the surface, the ink adheres to the lines of the drawing but not to the wet stone. A damp piece of paper, usually the exact size of the stone's surface, is placed over it and the whole affair is passed through a press. The result is an exact reproduction of the drawing, the full bloom of the growing bud that was; it is nature unchanged, its color is fast, only in fullness of charm has its body changed.

It is best to bear in mind that the artist who draws on the stone is a lithographic draughtsman and not a lithographer. A lithograph is a print and the printer, the man who makes the print, is a lithographer. Should the artist print his own drawing he is then both a draughtsman and a lithographer.

Although lithographs have taken small hold in America it is interesting to note that they played a great part in French politics as far back as 1872 in the time of Napoleon III. Govarni and Daumier made numerous lithographs caricaturing French political leaders. Some of these prints are very expensive today. The simplest way to remember how far-reaching the quality of lithographs may be is to know that on stone you can do anything. Storm clouds, filmy veils, the lines of a nude figure, are as keys to the master pianist's touch. On the abrasive surface of the crystalline stone every faintest or fiercest pressure, or swerve of the hand, is ineradicably recorded and goes down the ages in print. It is well known that there are lithographic schools both in this country and in England, but mere professionalism does not produce great artists. The necessary requirements are, as in other practices, a clear, concise and brilliant mind supplemented by a delicate hand, augmented at the same time with the dogmatic idea of constant practice.

One of the chief qualities of a lithograph, which I have already mentioned without actually describing it, is that the complete impression leaves a superb silvery tone. This is aided directly by the crayon. Crayons vary in hardness, stickiness and brittleness, from hard as a rock to soft as cream; from smooth as satin to sticky as molasses; from a consistency like asphalt to one similar to a soda cracker. They also differ, in responsiveness to temperature, in their chemical effect on the stone and in their reaction to the gum and acid. What one fails to do the other will. It is possible to cover the immense area leading from the grand and glorious silver point to the very lovely mezzotint.

Returning briefly to the distinguishing point between the surface difference of stone and paper, we find them to be very hard and very fine. As to fineness, the exact point to bear in mind is that the stone can be ground as coarse as paper can be made, but paper can not be made as fine as stone can be ground. Consequently, what we have are some coarse textures in which drawings, whether on stone or paper, may resemble though not duplicate one another. Hence, if you can reproduce on paper the tones and textures of any fine lithograph, you can not get a transfer print to bring them back to you. Transferring is not a sufficiently perfect device; it is successful only with drawings of a certain class and that a restricted one. Whistler understood this perfectly. While experimenting he went to various ends in an endeavor to find the limits of the transfer, but he could never obtain a satisfactory end. He simply stated finally, "Restricted indeed, I have found it". The greatest lithographer of all times, had he known what the modern men have discovered in recent years, he would undoubtedly have produced twice the number of prints already credited to him. The mystery of etching and the extraordinary expense of printing his lithographs drove him from lithography.

Lithography is an art actually on the same high summit as etching and just as few people will ever be great lithographers as great etchers; perhaps fewer, for in 1912 Joseph Pennell-himself a magnificent lithographer, having portrayed the Panama Canal in its early construction state, so that in years to come a complete set will be a historical rarity-predicted that the art in question would again be appreciated, as it never has been, not only by the layman but by the collector. He stated that the signs were all about us, that the artists are among us. Whom do you recall offhand, that you would call a great lithographer since that time? George Bellows seems to be the only one. He has been gone a number of years (1882-1925); in that time no artist has stepped forward to replace him. Probably one of the reasons for such a peculiar lack of great men in the field was the invention of photography and the production of blocks that could be printed along with the type. Lithography was largely superseded. It went lower and lower until, as a beaten boxer, it was counted out. The masters died, their equals have not arisen. It seems that the early men were professionals who knew their business; now, everybody is an amateur and nobody knows his job.

To reiterate: the stone on which the artist works is a sea-shell deposit to be found only in Solenhofen, Germany. The slight grain which it possesses is really the direct cause for the consummate effectiveness of the print. The main factor in the mysterious conception surrounding this singularly beautiful art is the chemical basis by which printer's ink has a certain affinity for grease. From its earliest beginnings, Senefelder's music designs, to the period when almost every thing was done on stone-due to the lack of photographic processes of modern times-to the interesting chromo and Currier and Ives period, we find a scale of public intensity that seems to waver, as does a barometer, up and down. Always there went with it a fore-warning of impending dullness and, of course, the delightfully expectant ego of appreciation mixed in. To-day there are so many modern uses perfected by the mankind of this machine age that it is not to be doubted that a sunny horizon is appearing for lithographs in themselves. When museums begin to purchase this kind of art it will be the same sort of tonic to the "black and white market" as a rise in United States Steel unfilled orders would be to financial markets.

It seems a pity that a lack of interest should prevail in this field as it offers so many fascinating hours to collectors. Those artists who have fulfilled their desires, by keeping on with an art that will hardly produce a day's meal, may recall Rosetti's limerick:

"There is a young painter called Jones,
(Why that chorus of hisses and groans?)
The state of his mind
Is a shame to mankind
But a matter of pleasure to Jones!"

A few years ago at a dinner, given by the editor of a certain magazine, at which a group of wellknown artists were the guests, it was Mr. Joseph Pennell who had the honor of being the speaker of the evening. Hung on the walls around the dinner-table were the representative prints of the artists who had so graciously consented to be present. There were George Bellows' "Execution of Edith Cavell", Pennell's "Niagara Bridge", and others. As usual, Mr. Pennell started off by criticizing the American artists for not doing their work directly on the spot, at the same time waving his hands towards the prints on the wall.

According to him, taking home an unfinished drawing was the worst way to complete a great print. It was his whole idea that a drawing should be completed at the time of its conception. This so incensed George Bellows that he thereupon nudged the host to ask if he might be allowed to follow Mr. Pennell. The request was granted and in a very convincing way Mr. Bellows refuted his colleague's statement. He remarked, pointing to his own lithograph, that he had about as much chance of obtaining a ticket for the execution of Edith Cavell as Leonardo had for an invitation to "The Last Supper".

A form of "black and white" which deserves special attention is the woodcut. It is a primary factor in establishing the reputation of the graphic arts.

The use of the engraved wood-block, as a means of reproducing designs, is the oldest known form of printing. The exact origin of woodcut printing is a matter of controversy, but it is known that carved wood-blocks were used in ancient times to stamp or print. They were used by the Babylonians to stamp bricks, by the Romans to print letters and designs in the Middle Ages to stamp monograms and designs on linens, silks and other fabrics,-a custom practiced in the Orient from time immemorial.

The method used by these early engravers was necessarily simple. The design was first drawn upon the wood; then the portions of the surface not drawn upon were carefully hollowed out with knives, leaving the design in relief. When this relief surface was covered with ink or pigment, and pressed upon the surface which was to be printed, the design was reproduced thereon.

Wood engraving was not in evidence until the twelfth century. Previous to the invention of moveable type in 1554, books were printed from woodcuts. The illustrations and the text were cut on the same blocks.

In about 1450 the art centers of Europe were in the German cities. German printers introduced wood engraving into Italy about 1470. The Italian engravers had characteristics of their own. There is a simplicity of line and a superior skill of design in their works.

It was not until the sixteenth century, and the advent of Albrecht Durer, the greatest master of the woodcut, that Germany once again was supreme. Durer was a master of light and shade, of narrative power and design.

Two other great German wood engravers were Holbein and Lucas Franach (1472-1553).

It must be remembered that these men only drew for the woodcuts; they all had skilled craftsmen to obtain the highest possible effects with the knife. Great Italian painters, such as Titian, drew for the woodcuts.

The great difference between ancient and modern wood engraving is that in the old work the wood was cut lengthwise of the grain and engraved with knives, whereas the modern method is to use a very hard boxwood, to cut it crosswise of the grain and to engrave upon the end of the wood with small chisels, known as "gravers".

The Englishman, Thomas Berwick (1753-1828), is usually regarded as the founder of this method. The essential feature is the uniform use of the white line.

In the illustrations of important literary works, wood engravings became thereafter a rival of line engraving.

Doctor Alexander Anderson introduced Berwick's ideas in America. He was a prolific worker and his cuts are to be found in untold numbers of nineteenth century publications. The woodcut became the major form of illustration for books, magazines, and newspapers, in all parts of the country and remained so until the art declined, due to the perfection of photo engraving. The art in America reached its culmination in the works of Timothy Cole and the members of his school. W. J. Linton, Frederick Juengling, Gustav Kruell, and others, carried their talents to high planes of technical skill. But the decline of the wood engraving was made most complete by the mechanical methods of reproduction, and the old school has practically passed from existence.

Within the last few years, however, the woodcut has had a new birth, one which is of intense interest to print collectors. Contemporary artists are finding in the wood-block print, a medium in which they can express themselves with the same joy as in etching, or in other print-making processes. It offers to artists a medium very different from all others, and brings with it a demand for a different sort of draftsmanship and dexterity. Freed from the shackles of reproducing minute details for commercial purposes, the block takes on its own character, and adapts itself to the style of each artist.



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