Wednesday, 23 January 2013

How to identify a Helene Mass

Up untill about two years ago or so, an Amsterdam auction house had an online catalogue for the sale of a very comprehensive collection of colour woodcuts by German, Austrian and British artists. It was a tremendous resource and is much missed and what struck me particularly is that someone had had the presence of mind to build up such a fascinating collection.

My own half dozen central European prints looked rather puny by comparison. Not only that, the signatures were so difficult to make out, three had been unidentified for years. But once I decided to make an inventory, I made an all-out effort to pin them down. Believe me, it is an utter waste of time trying to read the signatures. I remember a friend saying to me, 'My mother would have been able to read it,' but even though she came from Gelsenkirchen, I was dubious. Not even Germans can make them out.

But that catalogue offered a solution. There were enough prints by individual artists to be able to work your way through and identify the artist by their style. Most artists, once they get into a groove, stick with it, and there was something oddly satisfying about catching them out in this way. Englebert Lap proved easy, as did Paul Leschhorn. Matching the name in the catalogue with the signature, it all became suddenly obvious. The print that turned out trickiest was the second one you see here, and that says quite alot, I suppose, about the way Mass worked. Her career was suprisingly long and her output was diverse and basically she was transitional. I don't want to start bandying about terms like Secession or German impressionist, but I am sure you will see that the naturalness of the first print is markedly different from the formality of the second.

That said, the motifs are the same and more to the point the same sensibility can been seen at work. Each time that was the thing that gave them all away. But it was least obvious and more searching in Mass. Unfortunately, she had another fussier approach, in common with Josephine Siccard Redl, which I'm afraid I have to call chocolate-box mode. Not easy to identify at all, because it could as easily be Redl or Rotky (see below). Crude and early works never fit anywhere. You will say, he has chosen a bunch of prints with trees so of course they look similar. But they all did trees - Lap, Leschhorn, Frank, Thiemann, Johne, Rotky. Thiemann you think birch, with Leschhorn it's a conifer, Johne lime, und so weiter.

Mention of Carl Thiemann brings me to another, more practical point. The art reference section in Nottingham public library has always had an invaluable German publication, a dictionary of signatures and mongrams, where the compiler has approached the idiosyncrasies of artists with unimpeachable thoroughness. In the end, it is far, far more impressive than the collection that was sold in Amsterdam. It was that book that helped me to identify a Thiemann I found in a junk shop. Why I didn't go back to it for the rest of them, I really just don't know. But it will almost certainly be found in any large library in Austria and Germany. I can see it now, with the illegible signatures crawling across the pages like something out of Kafka.

Of course, one of the great things about a blog is the opportunity it gives to scroll down the page and compare images as they come up. One aspect of Mass' work I had not noticed untill just now was what all these prints here have in common - similar proportions. It is the square image made famous by the Vienna square calendar for 1904, was it? The date, like almost everything else, escapes me.

I should add my gratitude to Paramour Fine Art for the top image. Mass is reckoned to be very hard to come by, but Paramour have three for sale, and at a reasonable price.


  1. Said Dutch auction house also failed to identify Isabel de Bohun Lockyer, which I thought was wonderful in the sense that it makes her work more likely available for real lovers of the was my dastardly plan to secretly buy whatever I could by her on the cheap. Of course the only problem in my clever theory was that her work is stunningly rare, and good dealers know her...thus I am left with only one. One that I admit I adore...and one that people comment on...but one nevertheless.

    This leads me to Mass. I have but one of her prints, but Mass is an interesting one. I agree she does sometimes tumble into chocolate box, however when she gets it right, her work is stunning. An example of getting it right is the print you own with the lake and boats. It is so graphically stunning, that even if you didn't know nor care about the medium you would still be undeniably impressed by it. Colours and line, as well as technical strength and and editing eye.

    One thing I would say though is that the Mass I have, is a rectangular piece, a forest bordering a lake where Mass has presented the scene looking down. The focus is less on the lake, and more on the foreshore with the largest part of the print taken up with the forest. It is larger than many other woodblocks I have. I would say one thing I love about Mass was her brave use of colour. She was a modernist in so many ways, but especially in colour. Your postings, as usual Charles, illuminate.

    1. When Mr and Mrs Boxsius called their youngest son Sylvan, they gave him something to work on. A wonderful name like Isabel de Bohun Lockyer or Sylvan Boxsius is a fate, you are never going to be anonymous, you can't pretend to be a cricketer or a sea captain, you have to live up to it, and both of them did. If push came to shove, I would go for a Lockyer over and against a Mass, probably because I still don't have one.

      Yes, they are curious our little subterfuges and secrets. I have to promise readers not to post on certain artists they collect. Not that I mind at all. Some artists it is just best to keep quiet about, as you suggest. I get complaints about identifying artists on ebay as if no one else is going to know them. It's a lark, it really is.

      As for Mass, there was more I could have said (for instance, about her use of white), so your comments always help to fill the story out. The variation in her prints is striking, some being far more amibitious than others, as you say. I had thought about doing a visual catalogue to show her range, but I would have been at it forever.

  2. I'm glad you've identified the photograph of one of my Maß prints. And one I've found in a book. No gratitude required, you're always very welcome using them, illuminating.

    1. And no doubt I will get the complaint about breach of copyright from the publisher as well.