J.W. invited me to her beautiful Riviera Craftsman bungalow with an ocean view to show me a block of flat carved wood, a printing block for a relief fine art print. A relief print is created when an artist cuts away from the wood’s surface so that the carved OUT areas do not touch paint when pressing the block to paper. This is a woodcut. A wood engraving is much the same, but is carved on the denser end of a plank, capturing the harder to carve end grain for finer detail in a print.
The OTHER type of printmaking technique is intaglio; the artist etches lines with a burin tool into a surface such as a copper plate; the plate is inked and the surface area is wiped clean, so that the ink remains ONLY in the etched lines. The paper is then rolled with some force on top of this plate, absorbing only the ink that is left in the lines. This is an etching or an engraving.
Speaking about etchings, the hook-up phrase “Wanna come up and see my etchings?” has a fascinating history. This is a phrase that insinuates more than it actually says, a figure of speech called “litotes” in French. The English phrase originated with the French “Veux-tu monter voir mes estampes japonaises?” Much of 19th century art history is made fun of in this line. Think about Monet and his fascination with Japanese wood block prints. Owning this exotic art was considered a sign of a man’s good taste and refinement. The subtext also included the suggestion that the bachelor wants to show the lady a sub-genre of Japanese prints called “Shunga.” If you are not at work, do a search for those to see what this “litote” phrase, “Wanna see my etchings?” really suggests. Confusing, however, is that Japanese woodblocks are relief prints and etchings are intaglio prints. I digress: back to J.W.’s woodcut block, which is in fact a GREAT example of 20th century American woodcut technique.
Woodblock printing was invented in China in the 9th century and came to Europe in 15th century where the great Albrecht Dürer took it to heights. Once the surface of the block is inked with a roller, the paper is either pressed down by hand on to the block, or rolled in a printing press. One of the greatest of all American woodcut artists was Gustave Baumann, who developed the printing-press oil-paint based woodcut process throughout the first two quarters of the 20th century.
J.W.’s block verso has an inscription in graphite: “Superstition Mountain, Gustave Baumann.” Woodcut artists like Baumann began with a drawing, which is then reversed on to a “key block,” copying only the basic lines of the image, the most concrete outline of the work. This image is then transferred to other blocks, which are carved further to add other features of the design, called color blocks, because in some cases each color desired will have its own block. J.W. might have the “key” block, on which was carved the essential design anchor for Gustave Baumann’s “Superstition Mountain” of 1949. The main elements of the bush in the foreground and the line of the mountains against the sky background top, as an executed print is identical to the woodblock in J.W.’s possession.
What J.W. does not have are what might have completed Baumann’s finished print, one block carved for the yellow mid-ground, one block carved for the green cacti, and a block carved for the mountain color. This key block, if authentic would produce an image of roughly 8” x 8”; the original paper would have measured 11” x 9 7/8”, dated 1949, pencil signed, titled and numbered with Baumann’s “chop” mark of a hand in a heart shape.
This block may be an important find as Baumann printed only 125 strikes of this image. One of these prints in the edition of 125 would sell at auction for up to $6,000.
So what would Baumann’s key block be worth? Few key blocks have entered the marketplace, because to make sure an edition is finished, the artist generally destroys the blocks. To find out, with J.W.’s permission, I have contacted David Rago Auctions, most active with Baumann’s print sales. I suspect the block might be worth $3000-4000.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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