Review: Out of the shadows and into the light: ‘Chiaroscuro Woodcut’ is a sleeper hit at LACMA
Ugo da Carpi might not have had any formal training as an artist, but after about 1516 he had a profound impact on the course of Italian art for the next century. How? Ugo got a patent, or whatever the rough equivalent was in Renaissance Venice.
The story is told in “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy,” a splendid exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show is a terrifically important addition to our art historical knowledge of the era, as lively and absorbing as its descriptive but rather dry title is not.
A sleeper, in other words.
The technique Ugo wanted to patent is chiaroscuro — the use of light (chiaro) and shadow (scuro) to create a convincing illusion of form. Leonardo da Vinci had introduced the powerful technique to painting. Venice was a 16th century publishing center, especially for illustrated books, and Ugo soon cemented the look as essential to fine woodcut printing.
More than the simple and correct pairing of light and shadow — of putting light on the left side of an apple and a shadow on the right — the technique held the potential for visual magic. Skillfully handled, it got its muscle from creating an illusion of illumination emerging from the shadows. With figures and objects materializing in space from darkness and gloom, chiaroscuro could be a pictorial metaphor for enlightenment — the proverbial light bulb moment, or the visual equivalent of something dawning on you.
It dawned on Ugo that there was money to be made from the genius of Leonardo’s artistic insight. First in Venice and then in Rome, he applied for and got protection for a printing technique that could apply the painterly method to the reproduction process of a woodblock print.
The ground-breaking LACMA show, its 107 woodcuts selected and lucidly organized by curator Naoko Takahatake, opens with Ugo’s small, luxurious image of Saint Jerome, generally considered to be Renaissance Italy’s first chiaroscuro woodcut. (It dates from about 1516.) Inspired by Titian — a 20-something prodigy whose meteoric painting career was surging, and whose name the much older businessman-printer pointedly paired with his own in the finished work — “Saint Jerome” was printed with not one but two woodblocks.
One block was meticulously carved to leave the black lines that describe the composition’s forms. The other was carved more loosely to create atmospheric tonal fields in gray-brown color.
The line block contains the drawn image — a bearded, emaciated saint seated at his desert grotto, head and body thrown back as if in agonized attentiveness. The hermit, right arm raised, holds the rock with which he beat his chest in penance; his left hand grasps his seat and his left leg is bent back to stabilize his suffering body.
Ugo printed the tone block first for the background and mid-range hues; then he printed the black line block over it. In carving both blocks, identical patches were deeply cut into the figure, his garment and the little plant in the lower right — strategically placed next to the artist’s signature, calling attention to it.
Crucially, when the two blocks were inked, aligned and printed, one after the other, those deep cuts let the white paper show through. The result: Light seems to radiate from within the figure of Saint Jerome, rather than having been applied to it. He is the source of illumination.
Attributing a technical invention can be a dicey affair, but there is no doubt that Leonardo understood chiaroscuro’s true power in a way that rival artists did not. There’s no evidence that the two artists ever met, but Ugo would have been nothing without Leonardo — just another minor aristocrat’s kid, buying and selling rural real estate in the Po Valley before opening a printer’s shop in the big city.
Ugo claimed to have invented the chiaroscuro woodcut — that’s why he demanded a patent — but it really evolved from German art, a powerhouse of woodblock printing thanks to artists like Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Wechtlin. Two other woodcuts, one German and the other Italian, demonstrate the technique’s potential range of emotive force.
Baldung’s 1510 “The Witches,” a stark scene of ritual sorcery, was made with a gray tonal block. Printed in black and white, the picture is wild and fierce.
A copy made six years later by Lucantonio degli Uberti, a Venetian, features the same witchcraft image, although the composition is reversed because the artist was copying the Baldung print. (No other chiaroscuro woodcut by Lucantonio is known.) However, he printed the tonal block in orange, not gray, which makes a real difference.
Witches are a rarity in Italian art, and this witchcraft scene feels less feral than Baldung’s; it’s more spectral, mysterious and spooky. Perhaps Lucantonio is meditating on the “otherness” of its far-away German source, as much as on the witchy spells being cast.
Takahatake, the curator, offers a sharp surmise in the show’s first-rate catalog: The appearance of Lucantonio’s print on the Venetian art market might have been the spark that ignited Ugo’s desire to patent and protect the commercial viability of “his” technique. The book is jam-packed with new, technically oriented scholarship and scientific analysis of the blocks, inks and paper used, which helps untangle the narrative of chiaroscuro printing’s spread.
Ugo was indeed prolific: 19 prints of 12 subjects are here, several showing different interpretations of the same image. One of the most arresting is “Hercules and the Nemean Lion,” based on either Raphael or Giulio Romano. An indigo-blue ink casts a twilight spell over an exquisitely refined drawing of the grappling man and beast. Hercules prevailed by choking the lion in his powerful arms — a scene that Ugo makes simultaneously ferocious and oddly tender.
The real eye-opener, however, is his “Diogenes,” a collaboration with the painter Parmigianino. Made a full decade after creating his chiaroscuro technique, it shows Ugo’s technical command — plus a new conceptual awareness worthy of Leonardo.
Three versions are here, alongside a similar, very illustrative engraving by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio. Ugo’s sophisticated woodcuts were each made with four blocks and printed in various color combinations — light blue, gray, several greens, tan and brown — manipulated to evoke the transparent colored washes in Parmigianino’s drawing.
Diogenes, the contrarian beggar-philosopher, is seated before the big storage barrel that he lived in. The figure, wrapped in a swirl of billowing cloak, is powerfully muscled. Next to him dances an ungainly plucked chicken. The juxtaposition — robust muscleman and gawky fowl — is a wonderfully sarcastic rebuke to Plato’s description of humans as featherless bipeds.
Something, though, is missing.
What’s absent is prominently displayed in Caraglio’s otherwise nearly identical composition: Diogenes’ lantern, which he legendarily carried through the market during daytime in search of one honest man within a corrupt, indecent society. The artist placed a bright lantern in the upper left corner, where it illuminates the scene.
But not Ugo. There is no lamp in his prints. Rather than illustrate light, as Caraglio did, Ugo uses it.
Through the artist’s deft chiaroscuro handling, the scene’s remarkably rendered surfaces — paper, wood, cloth, hair, stubbly chicken skin — variously glow. And in that chiaroscuro, light seems to emerge from the sheet — from the actual print we are examining.
In other words: Art itself becomes the searcher’s lamp, on the lookout for human truth. Leonardo’s insight blooms.
The exhibition continues through four more sections that round out the 16th century. One considers the commercial marketplace, while another focuses on Domenico Beccafumi, the brilliant Sienese painter-printmaker. (Unlike Ugo and most others, Beccafumi cut his own woodblocks, rather than having craftsmen do the job to his designs.) A third looks at the proliferation of the technique in smaller workshops throughout Italy, where the once-radical innovation became a norm.
The last room is largely devoted to Andrea Andreani, who worked in Mantua. Today little-known, he pushed the medium to extremes of size and complexity, as in a deceptively simple image of an anatomically acute human skull printed from a total of five different blocks.
The climax is “The Triumphs of Caesar” (1599). It derives from Andrea Mantegna’s mammoth, century-old, nine-panel painting of the boisterous arrival of Julius Caesar into Rome, borne on a chariot amid throngs (including an elephant) and passing in front of a triumphal arch. Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari claimed the painting was the best thing Mantegna ever did.
Andreani’s multi-panel print is more than 12 feet wide. The ensemble, each section made from four or five intricately carved blocks, took more than four years to produce.
For chiaroscuro woodcuts, Caesar’s victory bash turned out to be the beginning of the end. The ostentatious luxury item, technically impressive and obviously expensive, wraps up an adventurous era, soon to be upstaged by Baroque dramas. It’s the exhibition’s “Final Flourishing” — the chiaroscuro woodcut as Renaissance CinemaScope.
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‘The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy’
Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: Through Sept. 16; closed Wednesdays
Information: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org
Also: Oct. 14-Jan. 20 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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