Monday, April 8, 2013

Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art by David Acton, Martin F. Krause and Madeline Carol Yurtseven

Beautiful landscapes from a master of the color woodcut
German-born artist Gustave Baumann (1881-1971) immigrated to American at the age of ten. After beginning his career in Chicago and the artist colony of Brown County, Indiana, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived and worked for more than five decades. Baumann was a master of the color woodcut who combined traditional European relief printing methods with a modernist sensibility of color and form. Applying his craft to the Western landscape and subjects relating to Native American culture, Baumann created an impressive body of work which is lovingly celebrated in this excellent retrospective published in 1993.

The book begins with an introductory preface and two illustrated essays on Baumann’s life, work, and methods. Together they combine to form an admirable abbreviated biography of the artist. At times the writing can be a little dry, reading like an annotated resumé, but personally I prefer the just-the-facts approach over the many artist biographies that read like psychological profiles. The essays are illustrated with a variety of works chronicling all stages of Baumann’s career, as well as photographs of the artist. One of Baumann’s prints, Spring Blossoms, is singled out for a technical demonstration of his artistic process. The eight color layers which comprise the work are reproduced individually to illustrate how they progressively combine to form the final artwork. Following the essays, the book concludes with 70 pages of color plates.

With a few exceptions, the 123 illustrations are reproduced beautifully, and the majority are given full-page treatment. The illustrations among the essays are sometimes layed out in a two-column format, rendering the prints so small they don’t do justice to the beauty of Baumann’s detailed carving. In such cases the reader may find himself hunting for a magnifying glass. Baumann often began his print designs from studies painted in gouache, several of which are reproduced here. These gouache studies look fuzzier than the woodcut prints, though I suspect this has more to do with Baumann’s painterly technique than with issues of photographic reproduction. There are a couple isolated instances where images have a blurry appearance that suggests they were reproduced from lower resolution scans than the rest of the book (namely figures 3 and 82). It is unfortunate that these few bad examples have to mar an otherwise exceptionally printed book.

Though Baumann utilized European printing techniques, there is a subtlety to his work that evokes the Japanese woodcut style. His ink application is somewhat mottled in its consistency, allowing the white paper to show through. This gives his prints a decidedly impressionistic feel, as opposed to the in-your-face patches of solid color often associated with block prints. Baumann’s sublime landscapes call to mind the paintings of the California Impressionists or the Canadian artists The Group of Seven. As for fellow woodcut artists, his closest stylistic counterpart might be Norma Bassett Hall of the Prairie Print Makers.

For fans of Baumann, this book is an exceptional tribute to the man and his work. For those who possess a love for the art of woodcut printing but may be unfamiliar with Baumann, this volume offers an excellent opportunity to get to know this master and his art. For either class of reader, browsing these pages is a joy and a revelation.

Morning Sun, 1932, color woodcut, 10.75 x 9.625"

White Desert, 1930, color woodcut, 9.5 x 11.125"

To view more images of Gustave Baumann’s prints, check out the web site of the Zaplin Lampert Gallery in Santa Fe.

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