Attack the block

April 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

No, I’m not talking about the film about a group of kids on a South London estate fighting an alien invasion. I’m referring to Paul Gauguin’s printmaking technique.

Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, 1893-94

Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, 1893-94

That might seem like a stretch, but I was looking at some of his prints – the Noa Noa suite, to be precise – some weeks ago, having recently finished the linocut portion of my printmaking course. Having had a go at it myself gave me a new insight into Gauguin’s technique…

Paul Gauguin, Auti te Pape (Noa Noa), 1893-94

Paul Gauguin, Auti te Pape (Noa Noa), 1893-94

…namely, that it must have been incredibly violent. I gazed at Auti te Pape and I could all but feel him pushing the gouge into the block in short, sharp jabs. His handling of what I think must have been a graver was no less gentle. (Speaking of which, you might have seen the Noa Noa prints described either as woodcuts or wood engravings. Both are correct, but it would be more accurate to say ‘woodcut AND wood engraving’. As with pretty much every other area of art and life, Gauguin wasn’t keen on following the rules, and he tended to combine both techniques on a single block.)

Woodcut isn’t an inherently violent process, of course – take one of Dürer’s exquisitely controlled creations and precision, care and grace are what spring to mind. Gauguin may not have been unique in treating the block so roughly (Munch and the German Expressionists are notable examples) but I think it’s safe to say he was one of the first European artists to do so, at least deliberately.

Paul Gauguin, title block of Noa Noa, 1893-94

Paul Gauguin, title block of Noa Noa, 1893-94

I’ve only ever seen one of Gauguin’s woodblocks, and not in person – the title block for Noa Noa, which lives at the Met. Next time I’m in New York I’ll make a point of looking at it, for further insight into his technique – and second-hand muscle memory.

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