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Renaissance Impressions - Royal Academy of Arts

Ugo da Carpi Diogenes, early sixteenth century. Chiaroscuro woodcut; four blocks (green and blue); first state 47.8 x 34.3 cm. Private Collection. Photo Albertina, Vienna.

Exhibition preview

RENAISSANCE Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna will be on display in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy of Arts from March 15 to June 8, 2014.

The exhibition will examine the artistic development of the revolutionary, yet short lived, printing technique of the chiaroscuro woodcut in the sixteenth century.

Often based on designs by celebrated Renaissance masters such as Parmigianino, Raphael and Titian depicting well-known biblical scenes and legends, chiaroscuro woodcuts were the first colour prints that made dramatic use of light and shado – chiaroscuro – to suggest form, volume and depth.

The exhibition will present over 100 rare prints by artists from Germany, Italy and The Netherlands held at the Albertina Museum in Vienna and in the personal collection of the Honorary Royal Academician, Georg Baselitz.

In the early 1500s, several printmakers competed to claim authorship of the chiaroscuro woodcut. In Germany, the artist Lucas Cranach even back-dated two of his works to prove that he had invented the new technique.

It is however widely thought that the first known example came from his compatriot Hans Burgkmair the Elder, with his depiction of Emperor Maximilian on Horseback, 1508, commissioned on the year of his coronation.

This novel, complex printing method involved supplementing the black line block (the key block) with one of several tone blocks to create gradations of colour from light to dark for aesthetic effect. The result produced greater depth, plasticity of form, atmosphere and pictorial quality than the earlier, plainer woodcuts.

The making of chiaroscuro woodcuts involved collaboration between the artist, responsible for drawing the design, and the craftsman, whose role was to carve it in relief on the woodblock. St George and the Dragon, c. 1508-10, for instance, is signed by both Burgkmair and the Antwerp woodcutter, Jost de Negker.

The chiaroscuro woodcut was adopted by other German artists, including Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Wechtlin from the circle of Albrecht Durer, and subsequently further developed in Italy and the Netherlands.

A few years after its invention in Germany, the celebrated Italian artist Ugo da Carpi, who also claimed to have pioneered the medium, made his mark with such works as The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, c. 1523-27, and Archimedes (?), c. 1518-1520 after Raphael.

Unlike his Northern European counterparts, Ugo da Carpi cut his own woodblocks and increasingly avoided the use of the black key block, working exclusively with tone blocks. His innovative use of the chiaroscuro woodcut, such as unevenly cut colour fields, led to works that have a more painterly character, as if they have been modelled in colour and light.

His successors, Antonio da Trento and Niccolo Vicentino advanced the technique and influenced other artists such as Domenico Beccafumi in Siena and Andrea Andreani, whose Rape of a Sabine Woman, 1584, inspired by Giambologna’s famous sculpture in Florence and printed in several versions, will be on display.

The technical potential of the chiaroscuro woodcut was also explored in the Netherlands, particularly in the highly sophisticated work of Hendrik Goltzius, the medium’s most important proponent there.

Highlights by the artist in the exhibition include the powerful Hercules Killing Cacus, 1588 and Goltzius’ remarkable series of landscapes and deities, comprising Landscape with Trees and a Sherherd Couple, c. 1593-98 and Bacchus, c. 1589-90.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were collected across Europe; from inexpensive versions sold by monks to travelling pilgrims to costly impressions commissioned by aristocratic patrons and connoisseurs.

Whether conceived as independent compositions or reproductions of works in other media, the woodcuts were enjoyed in their own right and admired for their sheer technical brilliance and visual power. They were also an effective means of disseminating popular subjects, kingly images and the celebrated creations of the great Renaissance artists.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions from Dr Achim Gnann and Dr David Ekserdjian.

Tickets: £10 full price; concessions available; children under 12 and Friends of the RA, free.

Times: Daily from 10am to 6pm (last admission 5.30pm); Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm).

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD

Tel: 020 7300 8000


Image caption: Ugo da Carpi, Diogenes, early sixteenth century. Chiaroscuro woodcut; four blocks (green and blue); first state 47.8 × 34.3 cm. Private Collection. Photo Albertina, Vienna.

Coinciding with Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, the London Original Print Fair (LOPF) will be held in the Main Galleries – from April 24 to April 27, 2014. Now in its 29th year, LOPF is the world’s longest running specialist fair dedicated to prints. With over 50 international exhibitors, the fair offers a rare opportunity to buy affordable works as well as masterpieces from across five centuries.

Daumier (1808 – 1879): Visions of Paris continues at the Royal Academy of Arts until January 26, 2014.