Art & Design Magazine

Process, Materials, and Aesthetics: Woodblocks by Otto Eckmann

By Adventuresintheprinttrade
Otto Eckmann was one of the most important figures in the Judgendstil (German Art Nouveau) art movement. Born in Hamburg in 1865, Otto Eckmann studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg, and then in Nuremberg, before entering the Munich Academy of Fine Art in 1885. In the end it was to be the arts and crafts element of his training that predominated. After initial success as a painter in the Symbolist style, in 1894 Otto Eckmann renounced oil painting and auctioned off his canvases. From this point he concentrated on graphics (particularly woodcuts) and on the design of tapestries, stained glass, furniture, fabrics, and ceramics. Otto Eckmann was also a pioneering typographer and type designer, and his Jugendstil typefaces Eckmann and Fette Eckmann are still in use today. Eckmann's type design was influenced by Japanese script, just as his woodcuts show the strong influence of Japanese art. Otto Eckmann was a major contributor to the two most important Art Nouveau revues published in Germany, Pan and Jugend. He died in 1902.
Process, materials, and aesthetics: woodblocks by Otto EckmannOtto Eckmann, SchwertlilienColour woodcut, 1895
In many ways, the career of Otto Eckmann can be seen as pivotal in the democratization of art. This is true both in the way he blurred the distinction between fine and decorative arts, and in the way he renounced oil painting, which was geared to an art market of the rich and powerful, for popular and commercial art forms that reached as wide an audience as possible.
Process, materials, and aesthetics: woodblocks by Otto EckmannOtto Eckmann, NachtreiherColour woodcut, 1896
The extent to which craft decisions influenced artistic outcomes in his work can be seen in my two colour woodblock prints. Both were published by Pan, and both were printed by Gieseke und Devrient in Leipzig. Although both are intended to be independent graphic images, I could easily imagine either of them being put to commercial use: Schwertlilien as a repeat image on a textile, for instance, or Nachtreiher as a motif on ceramics. And in each case decisions about processes and materials have decisively influenced the aesthetics of the final print. Schwertlilien (Irises), with its sharp outlines and bold contrasts between the black and yellow of the flowers, the grey of their leaves, and the uninked background, has been printed on cream wove paper. The creaminess softens the image and prevents it from being stark and challenging, while the robust thickness and open texture of the paper give an organic solidity to the print. By contrast, the ethereal Nachtreiher (Night herons), is printed on delicate, wafer-thin china paper, which is then floated onto a wove backing sheet. The resulting print has a dreamlike quality, as if the herons are conferring on some matter of mystical importance. This is quite at odds with the immediate physicality of the irises, which feel as if you could reach out and pluck them from the page.

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