Saturday, 23 April 2016

Z was the zoo


In 1896 this famous poster designed by Theodore Steinlen was used to advertise a tour by the company from Le chat noir cabaret in Paris. With its alley cat looking as fierce as a Japanese kabuki actor and the bold use of red and black, it helped set the tone for what was to come, both the forthright appeal of modern advertising and the eclectic appeal of modern art. Steinlen was not the first artist to mix the skills of printmaking and commercial art. In Britain, William Blake had learned his skills as a fine commercial engraver in the late C18th but the reliance on imagery over content was new and the effect in Britain, Austria and Germany was immediate.

Readers may doubt that Allen Seaby's exceptional image of a cockerel had Steinlen's cat as a predecessor but I can assure them that the fame of Steinlen's poster had reached provincial Reading where Seaby was teaching and that he was familiar with it. (And I am afraid I am not saying here how I know). But for all its fame and skill, I tend to think Steinlen's poster was soon improved on. L.H. Jungnicke;l's magnificent Tigerkopf  (1909) is a good example of the way an artist can strip away irrelevant detail like hammy Japanese lettering and arch stylisation and produce something of remarkable power. Jungnickel himself was a commercial artist and here you see the early stage of Andy Warhol's Marilyn (1962).

The whole thing really is a story. Artists are forever picking up ideas and Le chat noir attracted so many kinds of people, everyone from bohemian artists and performers to Edward, Prince of Wales, it's hardly surprising a mere poster could have such a large effect. Others perhaps were more subtle but perhaps no one was more effective. But if we have to start somewhere, we have to begin with the Swiss artist, Felix Vallotton, who led the way with a woodcut of Paul Verlaine (himself a patron of Le chat noir) in 1891. It remains odd and perhaps isn't much of a woodcut in itself. I prefer his later woodcut of Verlaine from Le Livre des masques (1898) but Vallotton went on to describe a world in woodcut where all the creatures lived, from bohemian poets to communards to cats, they were there. His remarkable image Two cats was published by the German magazine, Pan, in 1895.

It was not only the images that themselves or the modern subjects that represented a great innovation. By drawing on the tradition of books of woodcuts, Vallotton provided artists with yet another precedent. La flute appeared in his 1896 book, Six musical instruments. It ten re-appeared in the Saturday Review in London in 1897 as H.M. The Queen by William Nicholson. For Nicholson, the image was a great coup and made him famous overnight. Not that he had been unoriginal. He had had the bright idea of removing the Prince of Wales from a double portrait photograph of the Prince and Queen Victoria (a photograph that appears to have disappeared from the internet) and substituted the Queen's terrier.

I think his debt to Vallotton is obvious and like Vallotton he also went on to make his own series of woodcut books for the publisher, William Heinemann (whose nerve had failed him over H.M. The Queen). Where Nicholson did move forward was in his use of colour. Curiously, Nicholson's woodcuts were not cut at all but engraved on end-grain. I suppose he had needed to provide his publishers with a durable material like box-wood. He certainly had no intention of using the finicky wood-engraving style commonly used by newspapers.

Just as influential was his book An Alphabet. (The date is usually given as 1st January, 1898, but it appeared in time for Christmas, 1897.) For all his modern boldness, Nicholson regularly fell back on a folksy style and the longer he went on the more he relied on a period feel that tends to set the tone for a lot of British illustration. But once the folksiness is removed, we are left with the sumptuousness of  images such as Moriz Jung's Jaguar from his Tier-ABC made about 1906 while still a student at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule. By comparison, Jungnickel's Tigerkopf is conventional. Jaguar is out-and-out Vienna Secession while Tigerkopf  is Secession modified by a visit to the zoo.                                                                  

After that, there was no holding anyone in Vienna back. The posters produced by Erwin Puschinger and other artists for the Jagd Ausstellung of 1910 may well be fussier and less original than some of the best posters of the period (and there were a lot of them) but no one after all was looking at posterity. Peter Behren's woodcuts had been appearing in Pan around the same time as Vallotton's work but his poster from the 1910 Deutsche Werkbund falls back on a more conventional fine art approach but I like it all the same for its sheer bravura.

Huehner (1907) was the nearest Carl Thiemann came to the commercial poster style but he was a fine artist by training and more associated with Munich than the more radical styles of the Vienna Secession. All the same, I have always thought this woodcut was Thiemann at his exquisite best. It sums up the modern need for fine but uncomplicated imagery. His woodcut landscapes tend to start looking like paintings for all the woodcut feel they have. The sheer decorativeness and subtlety of colour is what makes this Thiemann's greatest and most telling print. But then Thiemann had looked around the farmyard, not just the zoo.


  1. Since you discuss both posters and William Nicholson, it should also be noted that Nicholson designed a number of notable posters with James Pryde under the pseudonym the "Beggarstaffs."

  2. Yes, I thought about it, Darrel, but this is not Nicholson's first mention in Modern Printmakers and obviously the Beggarstaff Brothers have already come up somewhere or other. I was tempted to mention Mabel Pryde driving a flock of geese into the studio at Bushey but her name slipped my mind.

  3. Hello Charles,

    your posting is - as usual - inspiring and good fun to read!

    However, I can't help saying that declaring Thiemann's "Hühner" his "greatest and most telling print" seems a bit of an odd choice to me. There's no doubt that this is a very fine print - like nearly all the woodcuts that he produced during this period of time (the print was made in 1907). Nonetheless, I think that there are more striking examples, e.g. " Münchener Straße", "Kiefern am Grunwaldsee" or the wonderful "Le Quai Vert, Brügge".But probably that is also a matter of taste.


  4. Ah, yes, Klaus, but we have to find a way of drawing you out of your Bavarian nook. You know Thiemann's work far better than I do and I shall have to look up the prints because I'm not all that familiar with the original titles.

    Anyway, it's good to hear from you and thanks for the details about the Thiemann. Now I think I feel yet another post on Thiemann coming on.

  5. Charles, I'm afraid there is some truth in what you are saying about the Bavarian nook...On the other hand, I am also a big fan of Seaby, Slater and the Japanese, which is very cosmopolitan for somebody living in Bavaria.

    Talking about Thiemann again: This year is the 50th anniversary of his death, so the city of Dachau has organized a special exhibition, "Walther Klemm und Carl Thiemann: Zwei Meister des Farbholzschnitts" ("two masters of the colour woodcut"). It opened this weekend, and I am planning to go within the next two weeks. I am really looking forward to this one as the city of Dachau possesses a vast collection of works of both artists, so there will be some woodcuts on display that can hardly ever be seen.

    "Le Quai Vert, Brügge" was sold at a German auction house last Saturday. I really wanted to have this one, in my opinion one of his absolute masterpieces, but had to draw back at €650 (plus provision). Maybe some other time...

    And as you also mention posters in your post: Thiemann produced at least one poster for a German left-wing party in the late 1920's which aksed the voters to "save Bavaria" from Hitler. As far as the design is concerned, the poster is definitely not among his best works. But it is quite remarkable, especially if you know that Klemm's career thrived under the Nazis after he went to Weimar. I once possessed a hand-drawn postcard by Klemm which he had written and sent to a friend, and he enthusiastically told the other person about the way the "party" had celebrated him in occasion of his birthday.
    Interesting to see that the two men who had started out together later chose two completely different paths...


  6. The problem I always have with German and Austrian artists is getting hold of the information- and I assume there is a lot more available in German than there is in English. I have been reliant on books like Per Amman's 'Woodcuts' from 1989 and a 1985 catalogue 'German woodcuts in the C2oth'. Not much to go on.

    Sorry to hear you missed the Quai Vert print. I was looking for an image while you were writing your reply! I didn't find one, needless to say. I didn't know anything about the politics of either Thiemann or Klemm though I am not surprised by what you say about the latter. His career might have prospered under the National Socialists but his art didn't.

  7. Yes, you are right about Klemm getting weaker and weaker with the years!
    Charles, If I had an email address, I could try to send you some pics. Only if you want to, of course.


  8. Thanks for the interesting post. I love juxtaposing Nicholson's portrait of Victoria and Whistler from the Twelve Portraits album.

    ps- Klaus - might there be a catalog for the Dachau exhibit?

    1. I should have said. It's 14 euros. It's not on yet, anyway).