A sad rite of passage at our house last week led me to the thoughts I share with you. My mother-in-law died in Virginia. While my wife was out of town for the funeral, we received several condolence cards. Most were cards with the generic sympathy flowers and clouds. But some were small works of art, cards depicting beautiful woodcuts and etchings. All were handwritten, conveying a personal message. When my wife returned and I showed her the cards, she remarked that there were also many expressions of sympathy via e-mail.
Letter writing used to be an art form. The message was well thought out and carefully written. And as much care was given to the paper on which the message was written as to the words themselves. Stationary and note cards reflected the personality of the writer. Often a woodcut, engraving, or etching graced the paper. Woodcut, known as xylography, is a relief painting technique of printmaking. The scene was cut into a block of wood, usually beech wood, and then printed on a fine quality paper. Woodcut came into Europe from China c.1400. Its first and perhaps greatest exponent was Albrecht Dürer.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) came from Nuremberg. His woodcut prints established a coveted reputation when he was still in his twenties. Dürer had a tendency to carve rather realistically grim scenes, such as his three “master prints,” Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513,) St. Jerome in his Study (1514,) and Melencolia (1514.) All three exhibit a medieval sense of mortality with plenty of gothic imagery. And of course his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse gets right to the point! Dürer drew his designs either directly on the wood or on paper that he glued to the block. Didn’t matter which; the cartoons were destroyed in the cutting. One thing is certain: Dürer brought the medium of woodcut to a level that has never been surpassed.
Engraving became popular during the 16th century. To create an engraving, the artist incises a design on a flat metal surface, using a hardened steel tool called a burin. But soon, etching replaced engraving as the favored medium for art works. An etching is created by coating a copper plate with a layer of resin. The design is cut into the resin and the plate is placed in an acid bath. The acid cuts into the metal where the resin has been etched out. Rembrandt worked in etching from 1626. Most people do not realize that his reputation as an artist was achieved through his etchings and not his paintings. The etching was the 17th century’s answer to the photograph. Much more realism and detail could be gained through etching than through painting.
The designs of English artist, William Morris, have maintained an enduring appeal. He established his design firm with artist, Edward Burne-Jones and poet/artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1861. Their hallmark was a series of repeated patterns, many taken from close observation of nature.
Even our own printmaking firm of Currier & Ives captured most every aspect of American life in scenes that have continued in popularity. In their day, Currier’s lithographs were considered appropriate décor for a gentile home. Today, they appear on everything from trays to Christmas cards.
Speaking of Christmas cards, another lost institution. We now send Christmas e-cards. No personal touch, no forethought of the far-away friend, just hit Send! I have looked at and read those sympathy cards numerous times since they arrived. The e-cards are gone. Just hit Delete. To my mind, it is a glaring statement on our society.