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Techniques

Linocut

Escher began his career as a printmaker in 1916, at the age of 17, with a linocut portrait of his father. The linocut or lino printing technique is a relief printing technique in which parts of a piece of linoleum are cut away to create the image. The technique is similar to the woodcut. However, because linoleum is softer, it is easier to cut than wood. The lines are more fluid and less detailed than in a woodcut. A linocut is therefore particularly suited to larger picture planes and large formats. The print surface is smoother, and does not have the graininess of wood. Linocuts are generally printed using a relief printmaking press, but they can also be printed manually. Hundreds of prints can be made from a linocut before the linoleum becomes too worn.

In the early days of his career Escher made several linocuts, but after completing his training he exchanged this technique for woodcuts and, eventually, lithographs. Later, he returned to the linocut technique for Rippled Surface (1950), in which two of his favourite themes – nature and reflection – are brought together in perfect harmony.

M.C. Escher, Escher’s Father, G.A. Escher, linoleum cut in purple, 1916
M.C. Escher, Rippled Surface, linoleum cut in black and gray brown, printed from two blocks, March 1950

History

Although the linocut is only just over a hundred years old (making it one of the most recent printmaking techniques), it is without a doubt one of the most commonly used techniques. It is a relatively easy technique, and the material is inexpensive. Other printmaking techniques are used mainly by professionals or serious amateurs, while nearly everyone once made a linocut at school. Linocuts were introduced into schools in the 1920s, as a means of self-expression for young children. It was its role in education that for a long time prevented the linocut from being taken seriously as a graphic medium.

Linoleum was developed in Britain between 1850 and 1875. The linocut technique was first used in arts and crafts education in the late nineteenth century. Erich Heckel made the first known linocut in 1903. In 1905 he and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff founded Die Brücke, an art movement. Later members included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. The artists of Die Brücke used simplified and often distorted shapes that surprised viewers and often elicited an emotional response. The linocut and woodcut were ideal techniques for this.

Other great artists who worked with the technique include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Markus Lüpertz, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff and, in the Netherlands, Dick Ket, Corneille and Klaas Gubbels. And M.C. Escher, of course. With their bold, unconventional approach to the technique, Baselitz and Immendorf played a crucial role in ridding the linocut of its handicraft image.

Gerd Arntz, Escher’s friend and fellow board member of De Grafische (an association for the promotion of the graphic arts, founded in 1912), was a printmaker who used the linocut technique throughout his career. He was using it in the 1920s for his isotypes, and after the Second World War he continued using it in his non-commissioned work, his book illustrations and his work for the national statistics office in The Hague.

Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme d'après Cranach le Jeune, linoleum cut, 1958. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2020, collection: Tate, London
Wassily Kandinsky, Der Spiegel, linoleum cut, 1907. Collection: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Gerd Arntz, Schaukel (Swing), linoleum cut, 1966. Collection: Kunstmuseum Den Haag
Henri Matisse, Title Page for Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos (Les Crétois), book with 51 linoleum cuts, 1943-1944, published in 1944. Collection: MoMA

Joan Miró, Le Chat, linoleum cut, 1938. Published in XXe Siecle No. 4 Christmas 1938
Marc Chagall, Plate 4 from Six Gravures Sur Linoléum, linoleum cut, 1984

Georg Baselitz, Ein Reh, linoleum cut in blue, 1985. Galerie Michael Werner, Köln
Jörg Immendorff, Entscheidend Feindbild, linoleum cut, 1982. Collection: MoMA