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In search of the experiment

The history of printmaking goes back for centuries. So it is no wonder that a great range of printmaking techniques have been developed over time. From woodcut to copper engraving and from mezzotint to screen printing. Moreover, many graphic artists have successfully added their own personal twist to this ancient craft. By experimenting they paved the way for technological improvements, but also for new modes of artistic expression. Experiments formed part of printmaking from the very beginning. In the 17th century, for example, the Dutch artist Hercules Seghers inked his etchings with oil paint, bringing color to the black-and-white world of etching.

M.C. Escher had little interest in experimenting, however. As a printmaker he was fairly conventional, preferring woodcut, wood engraving and lithography. Escher chose these techniques because he felt that they were best for expressing his ideas. It was important that the concept he had in his head was expressed as fully as possible in the print. For Escher then, the challenge lay not so much in far-out experiments on existing techniques, but in translating his ingenious ideas onto the two-dimensional plane.

But for other graphic artists the question “What could be possible?” was precisely the driving force in their graphic work. For these artists the technical procedures of cutting, engraving, inking and printing was no longer simply a means to achieve a certain goal or image. They turned the idea around: it was experimental technique that determined the visual language. In the exhibition Graphic Grandeur: Escher and His Contemporaries you can see the work of several artists who dared to engage in experimentation.

Hendrik Werkman

One of those artists was Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman (1882-1945). In 1908 Werkman, based in Groningen, started his own print shop. Although he had no formal artistic training, he had a very artistic nature. From the beginning it was apparent that Werkman had a great interest in the avant-garde art of his contemporaries – in contrast to Escher, who preferred to ignore all modern ‘-isms’. In 1919 Werkman joined the Groningen artists’ collective De Ploeg. They expressed themselves in the latest avant-garde styles, such as Constructivism and Expressionism.

Werkman printed posters and catalogs for the collective, which he designed himself. The influence of De Ploeg is clearly noticeable in these printed materials, which include the iconic Blad voor Kunst (Magazine for Art, 1921-1922). Werkman became acquainted with the work of innovative artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Theo van Doesburg. He also maintained productive contacts with important members of the national and international art world. He drew the portrait of Herman Poort, a Groningen literary figure and fellow De Ploeg member, who played a pivotal role in the cultural milieu of Groningen at the time.

After a financial setback, Werkman moved his print shop to the top floor of a warehouse on the Lage der A in Groningen in 1923. This was the beginning of a new and experimental period. Where in more prosperous times he had employed up to 27 employees, he was now on his own. Werkman gradually developed from a professional printer into professional artist, who used printmaking to give shape to his ideas.

In his print shop Werkman developed new techniques in a playful manner. His druksels (‘printsels’), as he called his prints, bear witness to an entirely new approach. Traditionally, a graphic artist first makes a negative version of his image on a wood block or a lithographic stone, for example. This allows the work to be printed in multiples. Werkman, in contrast, works in a much more direct way. While drawing he would apply colored lines and areas to the paper with his ink roller. Werkman called this simple but effective technique ‘Hot Printing’, inspired by the jazz music of that time. He would use the most everyday material that he could find lying about, in and around his print shop, as a shape or stamp to print with. Even the cover plate of a door lock was used to create unusual shapes. From 1934 onwards he developed his own stenciling technique: he cut shapes directly out of paper and then inked them to print onto the paper. He found his inspiration in the simple shapes of his immediate surroundings: chimneys, pigeons, ships passing by, but also the stairs, corridors and beams of the warehouse in which he ran his print shop.

Each technique required a new and different approach. He wrote:

“New possibilities then emerge spontaneously, and a fresh perspective opens up that invites you to work again… I am truly overcome with a kind of gleeful surprise again and again when I am at work. It’s an interaction between reason and emotion that pushes the imagination in a certain direction.” *

On 13 March 1945, Hendrik Werkman was arrested by the German Sicherheitsdienst, on suspicion of producing illegal printed matter. The Nazis regarded Werkman’s graphic art as Entartete Kunst and his appreciation of the cultural richness of Judaism was not appreciated either. Without any form of trial, Werkman was murdered on 10 April 1945, along with nine others. After the liberation, his good friend museum director Willem Sandberg organized a commemoration exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, which meant that his oeuvre would not be forgotten.

Carel Visser

Another experimental work can be seen in the Graphic Grandeur exhibition: the print Four Stacks of Small Cubes (1963) by Carel Visser (1928-2015). This artist is mainly known as a sculptor, but he was also an accomplished graphic artist. When he had had enough of his robust sculptures, Visser would take, in his own words,

“a very thin sheet of paper and a bit of paint and then make a woodcut, because it’s a way of relaxing, kind of like going to the movies, for me.” **

In his prints Carel Visser was seeking the same principles that he also applied to his sculpture: repetition, reflection, rotation, tilting and stacking. Just like Werkman, Carel Visser wanted to work on paper as directly as possible. He did this by using his wooden blocks, which he often jigsawed out of plywood, as stamps and printing them on the paper multiple times. Countless compositions were possible in this way. Visser would sometimes even turn the paper over and continue printing on the reverse side.

Carel Visser’s prints were not determined by a strict procedure, but rather created by playing freely without any rules. This does mean his woodcuts are a bit sloppy, with ink stains and other irregularities still visible on them. At first glance therefore, the work of Escher and Visser do not appear to have any similarity. The scrupulous Escher was capable of producing very meticulous work. And whereas Visser’s graphics are highly abstract, Escher’s prints always refer to a world we can recognize, no matter how impossible it may be. Nevertheless, both graphic artists found their inspiration mainly in nature. For example, Carel Visser has made a print of the reflections in water, a theme that also fascinated Escher. But where Escher chose to depict landscapes and animals, Visser was more interested in the abstract basic structures of nature.

Has your curiosity been piqued? The prints of Hendrik Werkman and Carel Visser and many other merciless printmakers are on exhibit in the museum until 5 September. Look, compare and enjoy: the prints by Escher and his Dutch contemporaries in Graphic Grandeur: Escher and His Contemporaries truly showcase the richness of graphic art.

[*] Jan Martinet, Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman 1882 – 1945 ‘druksels’ en gebruiksdrukwerk / ‘druksel’ prints and general printed matter, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. 1977, page 8
[**] Joost Bergman, Carel Visser, grafiek. Waanders uitgevers, 2019.

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