The woodcut: as a source of information and as a work of art

Guest blogpost by Struan Watson, a junior honours History of Art student on placement in Special Collections. Struan has been working to improve the descriptive tagging of our Glasgow Incunabula Project images on image sharing site, Flickr.

Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus. [Geneva]: Jean Belot, 1500. Illustration at beginning of book (a1v). Sp Coll S. M. 1986.

Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus. [Geneva]: Jean Belot, 1500. Illustration at beginning of book (a1v). Sp Coll S. M. 1986.

The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1450 is often now described as creating an information and communication revolution by making texts more plentiful and affordable. However, ironically, the books themselves – the products of this revolution – no longer always easily communicate much to today’s casual reader. With dense columns of closely packed Latin text most of these books have become very remote and inaccessible to us, therefore, for me, to come across woodcut images which can communicate with me and tell me something about the book I’m reading or about contemporary culture, is a delight. These woodcuts therefore act as a source of information.

Take, for example, Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus (Sp Coll S.M 1986), a collection of Latin fables printed in Geneva in 1500. The woodcut shown at the beginning of the book delicately illustrates an elderly man at a lectern, reading one book while writing in another, perhaps suggesting that he is copying text from one book into the other or taking notes. In the background there are a group of people who can perhaps be interpreted as his students. This woodcut stood out to me because of its detail. The detail in the figures’ faces gives each of them a unique expression; it individualises them. The artistry in the clothing acts as fine reference to fifteenth-century garments. One can clearly identify the folds, the trimmings, and the amount of material used. The furniture has been finely decorated where necessary (despite some flaws in representing perspective and recession). But perhaps the most striking piece of information is seen on the bookshelf. The books are stored flat on their backs with the cover facing outwards hinting to us that books were not always stored as they are now, upright on the shelf. The ability of the woodcutter to communicate all these facts exemplifies their talent which, I feel, turn this from an informative print into a work of art.

Title written on lower edge - further evidence of different storage conditions for early books: Ludolphus de Saxonia: Vita Christi. Sp Coll T.C. L. f11.

Title written on lower edge – further evidence of different storage conditions for early books: Ludolphus de Saxonia: Vita Christi. Sp Coll T.C. L. f11.

This woodcut is also technically impressive. The cross-hatching technique is used; an extremely difficult practice on woodcuts and only generally seen on engravings and etchings. While it is comparatively easy to scratch cross hatching into copper plates for the intaglio press, to work the same way in wood for relief printing demands intricacy and delicacy to ensure the negative space is safely excised without damaging the printing surface. The border has been seamlessly incorporated into the space which combines elements of natural and man-made forms. The added domesticity of the room is suggested through the inclusion of the dog, gnawing lazily on a bone. These all heighten a sense of naturalism – making this print stand out from many others.

There are many prominent names in printmaking, names often exhaustively researched, while many printmakers are overlooked, unnoticed, or simply unknown. However, what will be remembered – thanks to projects like the Glasgow Incunabula Project – are the wonderful works they produced.



Categories: Special Collections

Tags: , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. A beautiful, informative and illuminating little piece. Thank you Struan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: