Monday, 20 June 2016

Hugo Henneberg, the first linocut virtuoso


Around 1904 the Viennese artist, Hugo Henneberg, made this remarkable colour linocut  he called Der blaue Weiher (the blue pond), remarkable not only because of the image itself, but because he had used a cheap and nasty material like linoleum to make it. Exactly where he got the idea from, I do not know. Lino had only been used for making printing blocks in wallpaper production since the 1890s, so here was an example of a modern artist adapting a commercial technique in the same way pochoir was used in the twenties and screen printing in the sixties. What really is surprising, though, it just how good it was.

Henneberg was not the only artist to be using lino at the time. Gabriele Muenter had begun her series of portraits of Wassily Kandinsky (who had been her teacher at Munich) in 1903. Henneberg was different, more formal. Linocuts like Am Quai (above) also took photographs he had been making since the 1880s as a starting point. So, he was no youthful beginner. Although Am Quai is based on a photograph taken at Trieste in 1899, I'm including  his photograph, Bach in Fruhjahr, (below). It gives more of an idea of his overall approach to making images. The problem is it's not always easy to say exactly what he was doing because  Henneberg began to make colour woodcuts at the same time and in reproduction it can be very tricky trying to tell linocut from woodcut. Am Quai is sometimes described as woodcut and mistakes have been made with other prints, probably because no one expects them to be linocuts!

The temptation to head the post with Der blaue Weiher was too big for me to resist. Yet in many ways it isn't typical and most of his other prints would strike most modern readers as more conventional, a shame because what Henneberg's was doing with lino was new. But then, look here. He goes off to Italy with Gustav Klimt and Carl Moll in 1899 and comes home and  makes an atmospheric but formal print like Am Quai. It's Hiroshige without the humour and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that what followed over the next few years was a fascination with baroque.

Stiftshof in Duernstein (above) might come over as more intriguing than exciting, particularly the version in black and white. Certainly, it sits oddly with the Secession reputation for innovation and advanced modernity. I think what he had done with Der blaue Weiher was draw on the decorative work of Klimt. The way the reflections end up making patterns is similar to both Klimt and Egon Schiele. Frankly, he might have been better following this up with others like it, but he turned to Moll instead who was both less talented and more conservative. Both artists had homes designed by Josef Hoffman on the Hohe Warte in Vienna and Henneberg went as far as to base one of his colour woodcuts on a painting by Moll. This was inexplicable. Seeing one medium in terms of another is basically anti modern. It also causes confusion. To my dismay, only this weekend I discovered that I had put a colour linocut by Henneberg at the top of a post about Moll's colour woodcuts and no one but no one picked me up on it!

I tend to think that so far as Henneberg and colour print went, Moll led the way. Moll had published a portfoilio of large prints in 1903. Other artists made even larger colour woodcuts than Moll, but lino lends itself to a big scale because it is cheap and is easier to manipulate, particularly if you to go in for the kind of architectural detail that Henneberg seemed to like. Funnily enough, this makes him look a lot like his British contemporary, Sidney Lee. What was missing in Lee, though, was Henneberg's sophistication. Italy was easier to comprehend when looked at from Vienna rather than Manchester where Lee came from. Henneberg's virtuosity sits easily on him while Lee always has too much northern grit about him (though I used to like that). Henneberg could turn from photography to woodcut and lino with ease and get it right and, what is more, having no other artists to turn to for an example when it came to lino. Nor did anyone think of working on such a scale for many years. The fact that no one much, apart from Ernst Stoehr, followed his example only emphasises how individual he was. The Wachau portfolio of seven linocuts he published in 1910 became his testament because only eight years later, he was dead. You can see Duernstein above.
Unfortunately, not many of the images available online are all that good and the situation is complicated by an edition that was printed posthumously in 1921. The original edition published by Gesellschavt fur Vervielfaltignede Kunst have their mark on the left and a studio stamp of Henneberg's signature on the left, while the 1921 edition was annotated by Karl Nickman but with the printer so far unidentified (or at least that is how I understand the German notes). But either way, you get the idea. Here is Stein, above, and no doubt readers in Bavaria who are fans of Henri Riviere will notice what Henneberg was able to learn from that artist. (It's worth saying that Riviere was invited to exhibit with the Secession in 1899 along with William Nicholson, so there is no doubt about Henneberg knowing his work, I would think.)

In all this Henneberg was pretty forward-looking. If he derived styles and ideas from artists as diverse as Hokusai and Moll, he also set the tone for a lot of work that came after the first war. British printmakers as diverse as S.G. Boxsius, Claughton Pellew and Edward Bawden would all recognise a fellow practitioner, I would have thought. One thing they all have in common is an interest in place. Wachau is in Upper Austria and the prints take in similar views over one small area. It is what a portfolio can do in the right hands; the prints speak to one another as much as they do to us. And I think they do speak. The atmospherics of the photographs and the Secession formalism of the earlier colour prints have developed into that old thing, a flowering later in life. Claude Flight liked to claim that linocut had no history and that was what made it attractive to him.. What he should have said was it had no history he knew about, but some of it you see here - in fact a lot of it is here! It is astonishing really that Henneberg got so far.

At a time when symbolism came all too easily to artists and was often taken for granted, it would be easy to miss the poetic mood in Henneberg. Take a look at  Waldweg (above).  Nothing else really explain his shifts from photography to colour print and the way he appeared to change so readily from wood to lino (but because a lot of the prints are not dated, it isn't easy to say exactly what he was doing). So far as I can see, he preferred to use colour with lino. The colour of the woodcuts tends to be flat and unvaried. Even so, I also think the black and white linocuts like Wehrturm in Duenrstein, below, find Henneberg at his most delicate and subtle. It's a paradox I know but a paradox the traditionalist in him would understand.

Last but far from least, I am indebted to Galerie Walfischgasse in Vienna for the high standard of many of the images you see here.



  1. I was fortunate enough to see the blue pond linocut "live" a few years ago at an exhibit of art by Rudolf Kalvach in Vienna. It's very impressive.


  2. Didn't that exhibition start in Germany? The problem for me is not seeing the prints in front of me, so its always good to have confirmation from readers who have.

    1. The exhibition was at the Leopold Museum in Vienna in summer 2012: Fantastisch! Rudolf Kalvach. Wien und Triest um 1900. I believe it was only shown there.

    2. Yes, I was looking at the website only this week for more about the exhibition. I didn't know where the Leopold was, I'm afraid! It was the same curator as the Vienna 1900 show.

      Kalvach is coming to Modern Printmakers soon.