Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is dedicating a major exhibition to the Viennese color woodcut that was sensationally rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time many artists—including an astonishing number of women artists—began exploring the full aesthetic possibilities of the woodcut and opening the previously elitist art market to a much larger public. Under the banner of the social reformist movement “Art for All”, art was suddenly distributed and available to a wider audience. They issued an aesthetic challenge to the bourgeoisie and embraced the notion that all aspects of life should be designed aesthetically as a “Gesamtkunstwerk.”
The color woodcut grew in popularity due to its affordability, however, working with wood required great skill and the difficulties of working with it made artists experiment with new types of image and form. In an effort to simplify the process, artists even reduced the number of colors since each one required a separate printing block, making production swifter and cheaper.
Enthusiasm for the color woodcut coincided with the rise of contemporary posters, advertising, and newspapers. Advertising became increasingly popular in the growing cities and in the first ever Secession catalogue there were multiple announcements advertising such things as “the best pencil you‘ll ever find.” Such collaboration meant that the dividing line between high and low culture, fine art and craftsmanship, were becoming less distinguishable through the demands of a modern image production. These Viennese artists used their color woodcuts to reach a broader audience by encompassing everyday culture and advertising.
A prime example of this is the Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel’s Smoking cricket, 1910, (pictured) which managed to synthesize fine art and advertising art. This portrayal of a dandy, what would now be called a hipster, in the smoking cricket has a “timeless appearance” and executed in its poster form, seems to effortlessly anticipate the Pop culture of the 1960s.
Many of the artists included in the exhibition have largely been forgotten, but their “harmonious formal language” and innovation helped usher in the era of Modernism. This young generation of artists looked back to a traditional technique and in doing so contributed to the popularization of modern art in the 20th century.
“Art for All. The Color Woodcut in Vienna around 1900” runs from the 6th of July through to the 3rd of Oktober 2016.