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Reviewed by:
  • Origins of European Printmaking —Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public.
  • Colin Eisler
Peter Parshall and Richard W. Schoch , eds. Origins of European Printmaking —Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2005. x + 372 pp. index. append. illus. bibl. $65. ISBN: 0-300-11339-0.

This monumental catalogue is worthy of the great exhibition it commemorates — the most extensive early woodcut display ever held, to be seen in Nuremberg and Washington. Most of the works come from those city's collections, with additional loans from nineteen public and private collections in Europe and America. Some early engravings and original woodblocks are also included. Thanks to Nazism, one of the major private holdings of early woodcuts, 317 in all, was brought to the United States by Martin Aufhauser, a German Jewish refugee banker. Bought by Lessing J. Rosenwald, these constitute the major part of his 450 or so early wood- and metal-cuts given by him to the National Gallery.

Three substantial introductory essays cover different ground and are mostly extremely informative. Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch deal with "Early Woodcuts and the Reception of the Primitive," a vital subject. Richard S. Field presents "Early Woodcuts: The Known and the Unknown," a more matter-of-fact survey. Peter Schmidt writes of "The Multiple Image: The Beginnings of Printmaking, between Old Theories and New Approaches." His is a lively and original approach, especially the discussion of Anna Jäck, an Augustinian prioress with a keen interest in images.

Generally excellent, and essential for any library concerned with art, history, publication, or religion, this catalogue has three strikes against it. The book is far too long and too heavy to consult during the show due to frequent information repetition. A glossary defining eucharistic and related devotional issues would have avoided the extensive restatement of the same information in so many entries. Though without any overall policy for their format, the entries are uniformly excellent (if usually too lengthy), teeming with original technical, iconographical, [End Page 555] and historical information. Their authors are David S. Areford, Yasmin Doosry, Falk Eisermann, Richard S. Field, Sabine Griese, Teresa Nevins, and Paige North, among others.

Very handsomely designed by Antonio Alcala and printed in Verona, the book's color reproductions are too bright to capture their originals' present condition. But on the other hand, such brilliance may well prove an approximation of the prints' initial state. All inscriptions — whether in German or Latin — should have been translated into English throughout. Exceedingly rare, the inclusion of more secular material would nonetheless have been desirable.

Though arguments on the subject will doubtless never end, it is this writer's opinion that dates, when they do appear on prints, most often refer to their genesis, and not to some previous event. Since so few engravings were included in this show, their presence verged upon the symbolic rather than the representative. The inclusion of paste prints and their discussion was especially welcome. When dates are unknown, in my opinion, their approximations in this book usually err by being too much on the late side.

Cat. no. 24, a major item, if only in terms of its large size, could possibly prove a forgery. Printed on linen, this is ostensibly an altar cloth, showing the marriage at Cana (National Gallery, Washington) and the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Abegg Stiftung in Riggisberg). Perhaps divided in the early twentieth century, the two sections are reunited for the exhibition. Striking, the pronouncedly odd contrast between the extremely accomplished guilloche motif running along the sides and the extremely crude figures at the ends is highly disturbing. While the ornamental borders recall costly Minton tiles of the mid-nineteenth century, the four male large-headed figures at the ends make little sense, most of the men bearing crosses while prophetic in appearance. They recall some of those crude lead figures supposedly forged in Sardinia or England. Robert Forrer published this piece in 1898 when it was in the Count Wilczek collection, and many prints from that assemblage have since been proven forgeries.

Another extremely large work, also printed on linen, is one of the highlights of the show. Devoted to...


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pp. 555-556
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Archived 2009
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