The Challenge of Block Print Landscapes – I

Origins in the West

Nature and the landscape as an artistic subject date from antiquity.  The Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France are believed to be over 20,000 years old.  Amidst the vivid images of horses, deer, cattle, bison, cats, birds, bear, rhinoceros, is a lone human—perhaps the artist himself contemplating his vulnerable place within this wild, natural world?

17,000 years later, the walls of Greek and Roman villas were often adorned with images of gardens and the land.  But with the fall of the ancient Roman Empire, these natural landscapes receded as the background for figural and religious depictions.

Around the year 1500 artists such as Albrecht Durer began to move landscape back into the foreground in his watercolors such as Landscape with a Woodland Pool , his engravings and woodcuts such as Hercules.

While Durer revolutionized printmaking, making it an independent art form, do his masterful block prints equally mark the birth of the modern block print landscape?  This is more difficult to say.  Certainly his work is more dramatic and assured than his predecessors, his designs helping to define the block print as a tonal medium.  His popular images, more importantly, created a new artistic world-view, not limited to strictly devotional religious works, but a true artist’s expansive combination of technique, intellectual curiosity, and insight into human nature.

In Italy Titian also was drawn to the woodcut as a new expressive medium.  In his Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (ca. 1525-30) the natural world seems to come alive.  Saint Jerome’s contemplation is dwarfed by the teeming wildness of the surrounding landscape.  The skillful depiction of movement is foremost–clouds swirl, trees bend in the wind, the river water cascades over and around the rocks, even the defining lines of the hillside sweep toward the sky, seeming to uplift both Saint Jerome and the cliff face.

Titian’s woodcuts, perhaps more so than Durer’s a few years earlier, can be said to introduce the landscape as a separate theme in Western printmaking.

What do you think?