Saturday, 4 October 2014

Hans Neumann & Otto's legacy


The Otto of the title is Otto Eckmann, the German painter who sold off all his paintings in 1894 and worked solely as an applied artist after that. It was a radical move true to a radical era. By the following year he was contributing graphic work to the brand-new Berlin periodical Pan. (The first edition had an advert for Samuel Bing's L'Art Nouveau exhibition in Paris.) He then began working for the Munich periodical Jugend when that opened in 1896.

Neumann was the son of the artist and teacher, Emil Neumann, and while his brother, Ernst, had gone down to Munich to study at the Academy, Hans had remained in Berlin to study under his father. It was by way of Ernest that he came to know Eckmann. Although Pan had used both etching and lithography as well as some colour woodcut to illustrate the magazine, Eckmann encouraged both brothers to make use of woodcut. 'Concentrate on woodcuts,' he told Hans in 1901. 'The woodcut technique... is forcing you to concentrate on the essentials.' (Die Technik des Holzschnittes zwingt Dich unweigerlich dazu, Deinen stilistischen Ausdruck auf das Wesentlichste zu konzentrieren.)  It was good advice. Eckmann could see that Neumann was simplifying the technique in a modern radical way. Eckmann took a broad approach but made heavier use of Japanese art, including the keyblock used by the ukiyo-e printmakers. From the start, Neumann used the keyblock with caution and very often not at all, as you can see from his borzoi.

But perhaps there was also more to Neumann's Wesentlichste than only woodcut. I think there was a greater crossover between modern creative lithography, with its use of texture and bold shape, and innovation in modern woodcut. At least one of Neumann's early prints is described as a litho-woodcut (and I'm not sure what that means) while Sonnenschein  is as casual as a photograph. Neumann was looking beyond Japanese colour woodcut at other techniques being used around him. What was attractive about woodcut was the simple fact that he could print them himself and did not have to rely on a printer or his press. It helps explain his early use of that commonplace of German printmaking, hand druck. It is the dullness of the red and the stippled printing of the second borzoi that gives the game away. It may be as abrupt and selective as a Japanese print but it is modern in a way that almost no woodcuts using the Japanese method ever are.

Neumann was not a purist; unlike Carl Thiemann, there is never any great sense of the medium being used and when he does occasionally go in for conventional cutting, as he did in Canale Grande, it looks like a Thiemann. A later print like Neuschnee is unmistakeably a woodcut but I wouldn't say it was altogether typical. Also, unlike a lot of the prints he made, Neumann didn't make use of a watercolour medium to print with. He obtained the greater clarity you see here by using printer's ink. (I know that because I am fortunate enough to own this print).
So, did Eckmann really have a legacy as Neumann said he did, what he called Ottos Vermaechtnis. Well, if you look at the way Neumann handles the meandering shapes made by the larger pine trees or compare Eckmann's crab from Jugend with Neumann's Rabe im Landeanflug, I think the answer is, yes, he did. The point is Eckmann died from tuberculosis the year after he gave his fellow-artist the advice, so it perhaps gave the remarks greater valedictory force.

What we also have to remember is just how early some of these images are compared to many modern colour woodcuts and yet they appear contemporary with artists like Thiemann or Hans Frank who in fact were working later. The real legacy lies here; there was a decisiveness about Eckmann, he was ill but got on with things, and he gave Neumann a simplified, directional force that comes across the first time you see his work. I was lucky to see some of his best prints first, prints which are still not available online (and I have tried scanning them but it weakens them and it would be wrong to do Neumann such an injustice).

I could say more (and probably will). It can take hours to uncover new images hidden in little corners of the net. Nor do I think the scope of the images that are easily available online always do Neumann the justice he deserves. The delicacy he achieved, especially in his later work, is not always something a pc monitor screen is good at. Beyond that, his sense of scale is also missing. Nothing beats seeing the print in front of you, particularly with an artist like Neumann who relies so much on tone, and Eckmann's advice to you would be, 'Buy them when you can.'


  1. I really enjoyed this posting! Eckmann's remark that the woodcut "forces to concentrate on the essentials" epitomizes the strengths of this form of art. I mean, at first it probably did not seem to make sense for an artist to do without the infinite different shades of colours that you were able to use in paintings and watercolours. But if you compare the watercolours and paintings of great printmakers to their woodcuts (Thiemann, Hasui, Hiroshi Yoshida, Walter J. Phillips...), the prints are always more impressive, more to the point.

    The genius of Eckmann is undisputed, not only in the field of Jugendstil woodblocks (just think of his brilliant "Nightherons"), he also designed a new font (that I see every morning when I read the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung", the most widespread quality newspaper in the south of Germany). What a pity that he died so young, I'm sure he would have surprised us with some more ingenious ideas if he had had more time. It is interesting to analyze his influence on artists like Neumann. And you are right: Neumann's borzoi seem very modern and unconventional.

    By the way: congratulations on your German, Charles. Nearly all your quotations are correct, flawless spelling! Only the term "Ottos Verkaempftnis" is not quite comprehensible, to be honest. Could it be that Neumann wrote "Vermaechtnis" (=legacy)?


  2. There are fewer opportunities with woodcut for artists to be painterly though Eckmann sometimes was, like another of the early woodcutters, the British artist, JD Batten. What woodcut also did was release artists from the literary and academic painting of the time. They also wanted to get away from reproductive printmaking but still appeal to people or, as the British designer WR Lethaby put it, produce work that looked like it was made by someone for someone. Put in another way, woodcut has a conversational intimacy that oil painting didn't have at the time.

    As for my German, I sometimes see Mr Burley round and about and hope he doesn't recognise me. I must have been a disappointing student and I am sorry to say my translation was courtesy of Google.

    I've corrected the mistake. Goodness knows where that came from but thanks for pointing it out.

  3. The colors in that top one are so gorgeous!

  4. I shall have to try and find some more, then, Lily. Nice to hear from you.

  5. I have the borzoi on the red rug at the feet of an unseen lady. I love it!

  6. Hi there, I found really useful your entry. I am working on an essay about colour woodcut in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Could you tell me where did you find this really important quotation from Otto to the Neumann brothers about how to concentrate on woodcut? Thanks a lot! Eszter from Budapest