Renaissance Woodcuts at the Royal Academy

The communications revolution changed everything, including art: a statement that was just as true in 1514 as it is 500 years later. What transformed the world back then was printing, and some of the results are on view in “Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts From the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna” (Royal Academy, London until June 8). They are as beautiful as they are unfamiliar.

On display are prints that look like brush drawings and even paintings. These are some of the earliest multiples in European art, available — astonishingly — in a choice of what interior decorators call “colorways.” A collector in the 1520s could buy “Diogenes” (c. 1527) by Parmigianino and Ugo da Carpi, for example, in a variety of modes: with the shadows in olive-green and blue, two shades of green or light and dark brown.

They all look terrific (though I’d go for the first), because this is a masterpiece of mannerist art. The figure of the ancient Greek philosopher is at once fantastic, inventive and comic. He is seated, almost naked, with books laid out in front of him. As he turns, his hair, beard and cloak billow in the air. Behind him stands a huge plucked cockerel, fixing the viewer with one beady eye. The bird is the punchline of the piece; Diogenes was said to have been responding to Plato’s definition of human beings as “featherless bipeds” by producing a plucked chicken and announcing “Here is a man!”

“Diogenes” was a collaboration between a great painter, Parmigianino, and a master technician, da Carpi. The first produced the design, the second transferred it onto four woodblocks, that – when precisely superimposed in the final image – produced the effect not just of line, but also of differing tones. One block was for black lines, others for lighter and darker shadows.

The result was novel in several ways. It was a way of reproducing an image that could be cheaper than an original drawing or painting. More people could own a copy, and the image could be distributed widely, five centuries before Google Images. Some of the works in this show are so close to brush-drawings that it’s hard to believe that’s not what you are looking at. A number are reproductions of famous works by artists such as Raphael; there is even one showing a sculpture by Giovanni Bologna from three points of view: effectively a 3D image.

Chiaroscuro woodblocks were a brilliant innovation, so it’s not surprising that da Carpi tried to patent it; nor to discover that, like many people who want to take out a patent, he was not the actual inventor. Chiaroscuro prints were first made in Germany around 1507, but the technique quickly spread to Italy; another point this exhibition makes is how fast artistic ideas could travel in the Renaissance. Later in the 16th century, Northern artists like Hendrick Goltzius borrowed the process back, copying the Italian style and producing some splendid works on view at the end of the show.

The process of playing around with new media and swapping ideas across frontiers seems very modern. Perhaps that’s one reason why these prints appeal so much to the contemporary painter Baselitz, who has been collecting them since the ’60s and owns many of the works on display.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

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