Features Published 31 March 2014

The Print Rooms

Renaissance Impressions, the new exhibition of chiaroscuro woodcuts at the Royal Academy.

Kirsten Tambling

‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’, 1523-27, by Ugo da Carpi (from Raphael)

While Parmigianino slept, his pupil Antonio del Trento took his prints and drawings and ran off with them. The contemporary art historian Vasari reported that Parmigianino later managed to retrieve the prints, but not the drawings. The compositions of many of them appear here, with del Trento’s name on them: chiaroscuro woodcuts ‘after Parmigianino’.

Tracing the Renaissance and Mannerist heyday of the ‘chiaroscuro woodcut’, Renaissance Impressions has many such stories of artistic influence and exchange – indeed, ‘impressions’. It’s appropriate, since 150 of the works on display are either from the Albertina in Vienna or from the large private collection of contemporary artist Georg Baselitz.

The grandfather of the chiaroscuro woodcut was Ugo da Carpi, an Italian who claimed he’d invented the technique, which actually came from Cranach and Hans Burgkmair the Elder in the North. In Italy Ugo trained, among others, Antonio del Trento, who with Niccolo Vicentino joined Parmigianino in Bologna after the Sack of Rome. Though Vicentino’s woodcutting style was full of Ugo’s monumentality, del Trento’s work followed a more linear, lyrical style, like Parmigianino’s drawings.

Prints in general are having a moment of popularity in the exhibitions world: at the tail end of last year the Royal Academy’s own Daumier and Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Whistler and the Thames both explored nineteenth-century printmaking. Now running concurrently with Renaissance Impressions is Dulwich’s David Hockney: Printmaker.

The challenge of such exhibitions is always in explaining the technical processes succinctly and clearly to a non-specialist audience. This exhibition acquits itself very well on that score, partly with the aid of a video in the first room showing how a chiaroscuro woodcut is put together. The technique is also much simpler than it first appears: a chiaroscuro woodcut is built up with the aid of two or more printing blocks. A ‘line’ block works like a traditional woodcut, but a ‘tone block’ is printed over the top of it, adding an extra layer of colour, and therefore shadow. Wherever the white paper is left exposed, it forms a highlight. Use enough tone blocks of different colours and the line block eventually becomes unnecessary: the image can be made entirely out of light and shade.

Ugo didn’t invent the chiaroscuro woodcut, but he did free it from its dependence on line. Some of his most ambitious works are made up of four or even five different tone blocks, with no line block at all. The result is tight, sculptural modelling: gods and heroes emerge from their composite tones and shadow like Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves bursting from their marble. Del Trento, on the other hand, made woodcuts based on Parmigianino’s wash drawings, and they look like they’ve been drawn with brushes, not laboriously carved into wood.

The Florentine Andrea Andreani, meanwhile, using up to thirteen sheets of paper, created enormous woodcuts so tonally developed that they look like paintings, and in Antwerp, Adriaen Thomasz Key always printed onto cloth to create the effect of tempera on canvas.

This is the central invitation of the show, to look at these works primarily through technique. Art historical issues of line, form and light become central, as in Vicentino’s Death of Ajax where a frieze of soldiers is brought towards the front of the picture by progressive highlighting, marking the foreground out from the background. In Beccafumi’s Sacrifice of Isaac, the white paper glows through the figures wherever the patriarch is touched by God.

Despite the clarity of the technical explanations, it’s not an easy show. One hundred and fifty works is a lot, and these are intricate works demanding close attention. The accompanying interpretation is also detailed and scholarly. Occasionally, too, it seems as though there’s not quite sufficient space for everything the curators want to say.

The section on printing’s development in Venice is squashed into a corner and has just two works representing it, and there is also an unfortunate layout in the first and final rooms whereby prints are double-stacked, one on the wall and one lying on a table in front of it. With such detailed works, you really need to get up close. But there are some fantastic things here, and it’s good to see a show that really gets to the heart of technique.

Renaissance Impressions is at the Royal Academy, London, from 15th March – 8th June 2014

Kirsten Tambling on Ruin Lust at Tate Britain.

Kirsten Tambling on Veronese at the National Gallery.

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Kirsten Tambling

Kirsten has worked at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, The National Gallery and Dr. Johnson’s House and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She’s also a zine self-publisher and impulsive project schemer.

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