Thursday, 25 November 2010

Alfred Peter (Swiss, 1877 - 1959): woodcuts

Like a couple of other Swiss painters born around 1870, Alfred Peter also made surprisingly good woodcuts - proper graphic images that have very little that is painterly about them. Simple in conception, yes, but also effective and, what impresses me most, he was consistent in the approach he took to them. Nor have I ever seen one that is duff. This little classic of a bookplate for O Bertshci has all his trademark features: linear cutting, inventive borders, pale colour, faultless printing. (Keep in mind the fact that all these woodcuts are actual size). The cameo of the printer with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his press is a wonderfully workaday image in striking contrast to the grandiose heraldic pastiche around it. Perhaps O Bertshci was his printer.

The framing device he uses in this second print is also typical of his inventive use of line. The play between the stylised secessionst flowers and the leaves on the tree is another example of his subtlety. As with alot of the German-speaking bookplate makers, he often used puns (for those who don't speak German, Jaeger means hunter). You'll also notice most of the prints here are signed. This was fairly typical of European ex libris of the time, though not of the British ones. It tends to suggest he didn't see them as ephemera and took them seriously (which is not true of alot of collectors).

I'm sorry to say my scan isn't very fair to this next image either. The printing is super-sharp. With the elongated image and gregarious crows, we find Peter in a Japanese frame of mind. The sense of depth he achieves by using black, mauve and white is remarkable. The print correctly reads from bottom to top but he wears his orientalism the way I prefer it worn: quite casually. Whoever Franz Forster was, I envy him this delicate little masterpiece. What gives pleasure here is what Ben Jonson said about craftsmanship: 'See what man can say in a little'.

(By now, readers who took in the tone of my post on Sylvan Boxsius might notice something similar here). Information about Peter is hard to come by. There doesn't even appear to be anything in German. By their style, they must date from between about 1900 and 1910. This helps to explain their consistency. It would also mean he learned to cut soon after woodcut became chic and I reckon what was fashionable is the reason behind these deft little creations. Nor does this scan bring out the delicacy of the peacock feather border in this fourth print, a real masterstroke that reminds me, of all things, of a border of real cutlery painted by Jasper Johns round one of his pictures.

A more complex image, this one, using five colours. I'd guess the others involved two blocks and here you can see the painter of still life taking over, the suggestion of a cultured life made certain without the individual themselves being portrayed. Just two basic features, a vase of lilacs and a beribboned mandolin, and none of the striving lists that modern British book plate engravers go in for to say something about personality. He might pun on a name to come up with an image but here suggestion and simplicity, scent and sound, are everything you need to know. He might as well have just said, 'To aesthetes everywhere' and left it at that.


  1. Charles, quite increbly I recently found another of A. Peter's little gems and was directed to the Modernprintmaker trying to find out who this Alfred was.

  2. You've not been paying attention. You already have a Peter in your image bank.

  3. There is a "Steckbrief Alfred Peter" on the antiquarian Dr. Wolfgang Rieger's Homepage which presents quite a number of Peter's woodcuts.