The Royal Academy of Arts in London has brought together an outstanding collection of rarely seen Chiaroscuro woodcuts from two of the finest collections of Chiaroscuro in the world, the Albertina Museum in Vienna and the personal collection of Georg Baselitz (Hon RA).
The exhibition shows the development of the chiaroscuro woodcut, a printing technique that was developed in 16th Century, through more than 150 prints from across Europe. Chiaroscuro in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark to achieve volume and depth when depicting an object on a flat medium. The chiaroscuro woodcut technique accompanied the printing revolution and subsequent boom in book publishing. As printing increased so did the demand for refined woodcut illustrations and printed art. The prints were produced from finely carved woodcuts, using two or more blocks printed in different colours, through this method the artist could create dramatic affects that made the subjects look as if they were leaping off the page. It is all about the relationship between light and dark and it brings a dramatic effect to the subjects of the day, usually biblical scenes and legends. Whether chiaroscuro woodcuts are reproductions of drawings or original works of art is hotly debated and divides opinion. Some artists cut their own designs into the woodblocks others used highly skilled blockcutters, allowing their preliminary drawings to be translated into chiaroscuro woodcuts, Raphael and Parmigianino did this and some of their work is on display.
The exhibition shows fine examples of work by Lucas Cranach, Hans Burgkmair, Ugo da Carpi, Domenico Beccafumi, Hendrick Gotlzius and Andrea Andreani. It is an extraordinary exhibition showing some rare and very beautiful pieces which will be fascinating to the chiaroscuro connoisseur and of equally interest to those who are not familiar with the technique and the prints it produced.
As artist (and collector) Georg Baselitz describes them: they are much more than simply prints that look wonderful. “They are life-enhancing, they are exciting, they are moving.”
Renaissance Impressions, the Chiaroscuro woodcuts of the 16th Century is on until 08th June.
Acknowledgements: Images from RA and website