Phillip Denny

Woodcut ranks among the oldest printmaking techniques. In theory, it is a simple process: to prepare a printing block, the artist carves into the grain of a piece of wood using a chisel or gouge, a sharp metal hand tool with a concave cutting profile. The excavated portion of the block—the negative—corresponds to blank space in the finished print; what remains of the block’s original surface—the positive—is a mirror of the final result. The carved relief is then coated with ink and stamped onto paper to produce the image.

Historically speaking, the reality is more complicated: woodcut printing has almost always been a specialty technique requiring extensive training and special talent to do well. During the Renaissance, European printing workshops relied on master woodcarvers to translate an artist’s design into a block suitable for printing; not even the German polymath Albrecht Dürer is thought to have carved his own. It was a labor-intensive process that required significant capital and a complex division of artistic labor.

Woodcuts saw a resurgence at the beginning of the twentieth century, not for their ability to reproduce artistic subtleties with belabored precision, but for precisely the opposite reason. Taken up by German Expressionist artists including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), the crude woodcut print became a powerful tool of immediate expression. Simpler, faster, and cheaper to make than a painting, the woodcut print has the additional advantage of being a multiple. Mass-produced from a woodblock carved by the artist’s hand, prints allowed Kirchner and his fellow Die Brücke (“The Bridge”) artists—the founding four members of the group, which included Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff alongside Kirchner, met while studying architecture at the Technical Institute of Dresden—to share striking compositions with a mass audience. They believed that doing so would liberate art for a generation of revolutionary youths, as their woodcut-printed manifesto of 1906 proclaimed.

The artists of Die Brücke authored hundreds of works before the group disbanded over petty rivalries in 1913; the revolution came later. Kirchner volunteered for service when the Great War broke out in 1914, and in 1915 the circle’s former ringleader suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to Davos, Switzerland. After the war, the ensuing German Revolution forced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in early November 1918, and a new, fragile republic emerged from the anarchy in the summer of 1919. The beginning of the short-lived Weimar Republic (1919–33) was as tumultuous as its dissolution, marked by years of turmoil and stunning outbreaks of political violence: in the first three years of the republic, right-wing terrorism claimed the lives of more than 300 people.

Amid the chaos of the postwar era, German artists and architects forged new associations free from the imperial academies and hidebound institutions of the former Wilhelmine system. The Arbeitsrat für Kunst (“Workers’ Council for Art”) was arguably the most influential of the organizations to appear after the war. Established in Berlin in 1918 by architects Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius alongside artist César Klein and critic Adolf Behne, the Arbeitsrat, like other postwar groups throughout Germany, modeled itself after Russian revolutionary “workers’ soviets,” or councils. The membership of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst was drawn from local organizations including the Deutscher Werkbund and the Novembergruppe (named after the revolution). The Arbeitsrat was a hetero-geneous union, but what held it together was a shared conviction that art would shape the country’s postwar future and foster an egalitarian society.

The artists and architects of the Arbeitsrat would foment the revolution. Their manifesto—emblazoned on a woodcut by artist Max Pechstein depicting an architect, a sculptor, and a painter charging forth, propelled by an explosion of stars and shrapnel—declared: “Art shall no longer be for the enjoyment of the few but for the life and happiness of the masses.”

Political winds soon changed course, and the revolutionary bearing of the Arbeitsrat proved untenable as a new parliamentary democracy solidified. Gropius took over for Taut and refashioned the group’s program, downplaying the politics while sharpening its artistic ambitions. In a short note published on the occasion of the Arbeitsrat-organized Ausstellung für unbekannte Architekten (Exhibition for Unknown Architects) in Berlin, April 1919, Gropius issued a call for a new socialism of art without boundaries separating crafts and fine art, rooted in building: “Painters and sculptors, break through the barriers to architecture to become fellow builders, fellow strugglers for the final goal of art: the creative conception of the cathedral of the future, which will once again be all in one shape, architecture, and sculpture, and painting.” In the same month, Gropius rechristened Saxony’s former royal art academies—which had recently come under his charge—Staatliches Bauhaus.

No one was building cathedrals after the war ended, but in naming the school Bauhaus, Gropius had in mind a new Bauhütte, echoing the collectives of stonemasons, carpenters, and artisans who had built the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Lyonel Feininger’s 1919 woodcut Kathedrale (Cathedral), shown here, served as the frontispiece to the school’s four-page manifesto, a shimmering emblem for an inchoate utopia. The cathedral emerges at center like a cut gem—all facets. Three stars, said to represent painting, sculpture, and architecture, gleam atop the building’s three towers, sending a fusillade of light in all directions. The page quivers with the frenzied marks of stars, cathedral, and the storm gathering behind it. At any moment, it seems, the cathedral might shatter—or erupt.

Feininger’s cathedral shines in two directions, both forward and backward, in time. Read backward, the image recalls, almost nostalgically, an idealized medieval age, the gesture underlined by the historical connotations of the woodcut technique. Seen in this light, the cathedral is proffered as example par excellence of the Romantic Gesamtkunstwerk—the total unification of the arts achieved by the great monuments of the past. Read forward, the cathedral crystallizes a vision of the future in which architecture, “ultimate aim of all visual arts,” is again the center of communal life, built by the cooperative labors of many. These associations are powerfully superimposed in the figure of the cathedral, which is rendered simultaneously familiar enough to be a touchstone and strange enough to be a glimmer of a time to come.

The cathedrals were printed and sent around the world in 1919, accompanying Gropius’s hopeful manifesto for a future architecture of egalitarian solidarity: “Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist. Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.” ⬤

PHILLIP DENNY moved to Berlin last month.

This article appeared in our February 2022 Issue, #26. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.