Saturday, 29 January 2011

Paul Leschhorn: master of light

Of all the German colour woodcut artists, Paul Leschhorn (1876 - 1951) was one of the most sensitive and serious. In some ways he is also one of the most elusive. He was born in Metz where his father had moved from Saarbrucken - not very far but a move that was to have repercussions all through his son's life. Georg Leschhorn had come to this new western province only after the end of the Franco-Prussian war (1870 - 1871). He was a hydraulic engineer with a talent for drawing and at the age of seventeen Paul duly became a student at the school of applied arts in Strasbourg. This led to his first career as a decorative painter.

This wasn't an unusual start for someone who was eventually to become a full-time artist. Schools of arts and crafts, like the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, had been opening in emulation of the South Kensington school in London. The emphasis was on the study of all the arts of the past but as you see from these colour woodcuts, Leschhorn eventually made a complete break from C19th historicism even though he became a great collector of oriental art himself. From about 1900, when he wasn't working, he began to make trips across the Vosges on skis - trips that eventually provided the subject for his colour prints. It was also at this time he began a second two-year course at Strasbourg. He also went on to study etching in Karlsruhe but, as so often with other colour wooodcut artists, no one seems to know where he learned to make woodcuts. On the evidence of his drawings and paintings, he wasn't a particularly good draughtsman - this may be one reason why he changed tack - but the prints he began to make after 1908 have a sense of varying light and atmosphere that are his own and quite unique. He often shares the same woodland subjects with his German contemporary Hans Neumann (1873 - 1957) but ironically for someone who trained as a decorative artist, it is Leschhorn's lack of decorativeness that makes him better than Neumann. In the next generation Oscar Droege (1898 - 1982) described the same atmospheric landscapes. But again, I don't think he ever equalled Leschhorn.

In his colour prints, everything that happens is subordinate to the landscape and the particular kind of light he wants to describes. There are no cheap thrills. He constantly uses a subtle sense of recession, especially between trees, and very delicate printing to evoke a time of day or year. The snow is there not because it is easy to do for a woodcut artist but to reflect the light. It's rarely pure; it's almost always shaded. Superficially, he has only two related subjects for his colour prints - snowy mountains and snowy forests. You would never think that he had travelled in Corsica or Morocco. But I think the real subject is the nature of light itself. Looking at all these images, one after the other, the mountains and trees are very similar; it's the light that shifts. He's particularly good when it comes to distance and the darkening light of winter eg in the valley scene above and also the farm seen across the lake. Here is someone who very much likes what he represents and finds nothing oppressive in either isolation or gloom.

Then as war approached again in 1938, he and his wife Anna left Strasbourg for the safety of Frankfurt - a second very fateful move. They had taken 180 woodcuts with them and these were left in the city when they returned to the Alsace in 1941. But in 1944 the couple were forced to flee once again. In Frankfurt, much of his work had been destroyed during Allied bombing. This time they left for the Bodensee/Lake Constance. It is alot harder to date any of his prints. The approach is remarkably consistent. As a late developper, if you like, he was sufficiently mature when he began printmaking in his thirties to know what was of interest to him. There are few buildings, not many roads and the print below is the only one I have come across to have a person. As he never uses a keyblock, figures would always prove a touch awkward to model. The figure here does tend to look like it is stuck on even though he makes every attempt to relate it to the slope and the view beyond. And in terms of biography, it is very interesting to see the lone skier. But the snow-patterned pines are both three dimensional and more rewarding. As someone said to many years ago about his trees 'they're quite abstract'. He is both more modern and more realistic than he at first appears to be.

Regular visitors to this blog (if they have put up with me thus far) will by now have recognised the tone of adulation. This appraisal is in fact a re-post. I don't think I really did Leschhorn that much justice in the earlier posts (now deleted). Also I have recently turned up other work by him that was new to me and this gave me a much better idea of what he was doing. And you do have to see how consistent he was to appreciate what that was. As with Kenneth Broad, his subject was important to him, and he varied his approach with subtlety. I also finally tackled the google translation of the website dedicated to the artist by his descedants. proved invaluable to understanding his life a little and will also provide an easier view of things if you read German. If you don't, there are lots of pictures. (If the link doesn't work, google it). It's easy enough to say that an artist is underated if you're a fan but the proof of this lies in the ebay price for the lone skier only last October, I think - a really rather desultory 120€. Times surely can't be that hard in Germany.

Nor did I intend this post to be an antidote to Kenneth Broad but I did want to look at someone who was equally absorbed by his subject matter but went about things in a very different way. Broad is also good on light but Leschhorn works with a scrutiny and control. The range of colour is remarkably restricted - almost as much as his subject matter. He hardly ever distracts you; he only asks that you do one thing: look, and also concentrate: the message of a master, however small.


  1. Fascinating. I can't agree with you that he is better than Hans Neumann - Neumann's sense of composition is much stronger, and his colour values are more subtle. But this is a very valuable summation of Leschhorn's achievement, and his special sense of light and space.

  2. Charles,

    I find your post very interesting, I didn't know much about Leschhorns life, and some of the woodcuts you show were new to me, too. You are right, the subtle use of light in the best winter landscapes is superb. I think some of these prints bring Rotky to mind, don't they?

    On the other hand, I wouldn't have paid more than 120€ for the skier, either, to be honest - and not only because I live in impoverished Germany. I simply find this print very conventional. My grandma would have liked it, too, if you know what I mean. That's also why I don't think Droege is inferior to Leschhorn (on the contrary!!).

    But maybe these judgements are subjective, and the winter landscape with the solitary pine is simply haunting ( worth at least € 125!)


  3. Very informative posting Charles (the comments too). It's good to see the lifetime achievements (prints), biography and opinions brought together otherwise so scattered. Most of these wonderful artist (the heroes and heroines of the woodblock) haven't been granted books or cataloques.

  4. I was pleased to find a queue of comments & views on the Leschhorn post this morning and thank you to everyone for chipping in.

    I have to admit I hesitated to draw comparisons between Leshchorn and both Neumann and Droege and perhaps I was being mischievous in going ahead. That said, I can only reiterrate what I said above: Leshchhorn isn't quite as simple as he seems. What he lacks in compositional values he gains in feeling. A bit too intangible? Perhaps. Certainly Klaus' point about the conventions he was using is a valid one. Even so I suspect his grandma would have had quite advanced taste if she had one on the wall in 1910.

    I concentrated on colour woodcut because that is the work he is best known for now. I've never seen any of his decorative work; the interest in the only etching I'ver seen was, let's say, obscure; the paintings probably are now of alot less interest than the prints.

    As for price, Klaus, the one I bought in the mid-eighties stood out against the Rigden Reads and Helen Stevensons as working on another level. It was £70 even then but I coughed up. Just as well I did. I've never seen once since.

  5. I like these, they have a real subtlety of colour and also of technique, they become very painterly.

  6. I'm pleased that you like them, Frangipan. I think you might also like Anna Mackova who should be coming next.