Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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EMOTIONAL VIEWING: On finding a visible relief in the German woodcut print, c. 1435-1921



[1] In line with the theme of ‘Northern Renaissance Afterlives’, German cultural discourse of the period surrounding the First World War was overtly invested in a past that was harnessed to contemporary conflicts, both real and metaphorical. Drawing on the convergence of an idealised past and a troubled present in the exaggerated reception of the woodcut print after 1918, this article negotiates notoriously polyvalent terms and shifting boundaries determined by persuasive claims to a Germano-centric late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. So urgent was the desire to delineate German production from an Italian Renaissance aesthetic that we find Expressionist art historians drawing a period line through the middle of Albrecht Dürer’s own woodcut production. Equally urgent, it seemed, was the message contained in the early twentieth-century modernist woodcut. Hailed variously as ‘the emblem of the new art’ (‘Das Wahrzeichen der neuen Kunst’) (Glaser 1920: 58), or ‘a Gospel of Truth’ (‘ein Evangelium der Wahrheit’) (Renner 1919), this medium appears to have struck a common nerve.

[2] The central protagonist in this frame is art historian Paul Westheim (1886-1963), publisher of the journal Das Kunstblatt and author of a history of the woodcut print; Das Holzschnittbuch, 1921 (Westheim 1917; 1921). His emphatic arguments for the ‘monumental’ quality of works on paper apply equally to the fifteenth century and to his contemporary era. Interpreting the term ‘monumentality’ as a leitmotif for visual affect, I shall first consider Westheim’s chief examples, especially an early fifteenth-century Saint Christopher (figure 1). Attention then turns to Westheim’s contemporary, the sculptor and graphic artist Ernst Barlach (1871-1938), whose Christ in Gethsemane of 1919 (figure 2) makes a prime candidate for monumental status within Westheim’s framework of interests. Equally convinced of its reparative strengths, Barlach took up this uncompromising woodcut medium in 1918. Translating the ponderous rhythms of his sculpture into planar form, his pathos-laden prints conform firmly to a modernist aesthetic whilst also transmitting more than an echo of the Northern Renaissance.

Figure 1: St Christopher woodcut, South German, c. 1430, 24.5 x 19.3 cm (Nuremburg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum)
Figure 2: Ernst Barlach, Christ in Gethsemane, woodcut 1919, 20.5 x 25.4 cm (Ernst Barlach Stiftung Gϋstrow)

[3] This article investigates grounds for the heightened emotions invested equally in the viewing and the making of an art form characterised by bold linear forms and stark visual contrasts. Assessing a distinctive attention to the perceptual and also material conditions of the print surfaces found in the writings of contemporary critics, it advances a theory of ‘visible relief’ that, it is argued, might subsume both the material structure and the viewer’s response. Notwithstanding critical reservations towards an art history of affectivity (Rampley 2021), reference to studies belonging under the broad heading of neuroarthistory include theories of visual perception developed by the Gestalt school in Berlin during the period in focus, and present-day empathy theory in its art-historical application. In the first instance, this connection is prompted by intriguing parallels between Gestalt terminology and the somatosensory register which dominates the language of Expressionist-period art critics. Secondly, a cognitive-psychological analysis is deemed productive as a counterpart to the exaggerated claims to a ‘spiritual’ regeneration that are a known factor in the cultural cohesion afforded by this art form in the aftermath of war. It is, therefore, in order to deconstruct the visionary status of this modest medium and its historical resonance, that the field of attention is reduced in this analysis to the visual structures inherent to the woodcut and its technical conditions. Employing Paul Westheim’s formula of monumentality as a bridge between the cultural and the psycho-physiological power of the woodcut print in its Northern Renaissance and modernist manifestations, I shall advance a case for the spare pictorial economy of the woodcut as a source of tangible meaning in unstable times.

[4] This investigation takes its point of departure from the scholarship on the significance of the woodcut within a German Expressionist print culture; a field that, while encompassing a variety of approaches, nonetheless placed high importance in the creative and indeed political potential of original printmaking (Carey and Griffiths 1984; Rigby 1993). Within this frame, the revival of interest in the woodcut technique from the late nineteenth century onwards has received critical attention in the work of Robin Reisenfeld (1997) and Christian Weikop (2005; 2008); both scholars creating a detailed picture of how the medium could by 1914 come to be regarded both as synonymous with a German ‘soul’ and an arena for avant-garde creative identity. An important element of Weikop’s argument for an ‘arboreal expressionism’ in the work of the Brücke artists is an acknowledgement of the subject of modernist woodcut production as a form of primitivism (Weikop 2005: 20). When it comes to the status of graphic art in the aftermath of the First World War, Reinhold Heller’s memorable suggestion that the woodcut functioned as ‘an instrument of national salvation’ draws attention to the heightened emotions invested in an art form of modest means and with a solid German lineage (1993: 8). According to Heller, for artists including Ernst Barlach, ‘the very medium, with its historical and religious linkage, was a palliative for the artists, a restorer of strength’ (1993: 17).

[5] While largely anchored in the field of Expressionist studies, scholarship on the woodcut print in the medieval and Northern Renaissance is also integral to this article. The substantial publication Origins of European Printmaking (Parshall and Schoch 2005) represents an important source of information and analysis. Pertinently, the German Expressionist reception of late-Gothic works is attended to in the introductory essay, where a general fascination for the ‘primitive’ qualities of the early works is attributed in part to the influence of both Paul Westheim and Wilhelm Worringer (2005: 10-12). Also highly relevant to my study is Elina Gertsman’s article on the self-referential theme of imprinting embodied in early German and Netherlandish woodcuts on in the subject of Christ in the Wine Press (Gertsman 2013). Of particular interest is this author’s exploration of medieval theories of vision in the liturgical context of medieval sermons on Christ’s Passion. Despite centuries of scientific developments, I find it revealing to observe terminological similarities between that context and twentieth-century Gestalt psychology. Moreover, Gertsman’s analysis of the ‘chain of multiple impressions’ induced by the prints in question offers a reference point for the embodied simulation of pressure evinced simply by the viewing of a print made in this material technique (2013: 333). The somatosensory implications pursued here make an intriguing parallel to my working theory of ‘visible relief’.

[6] Given that this article rests on some notoriously malleable art-historical definitions, it is important to establish firstly how the term Expressionism evolved across the period. This had begun in the early years of the twentieth century as an international tendency which, along with the major representatives in Dresden (Die Brücke), in Munich (Der Blaue Reiter) as well as important individuals, embraced crosscurrents of the avantgarde in France, Italy and Scandinavia especially (Behr 1999; West 2000; Benson 2014). The first application of the term to German artists was in relation to the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne in 1912 (West: 84) and by the time of the first monograph on the subject in 1914, the style had become stamped with an unequivocally nationalist character. Thus, Paul Fechter’s Expressionismus would claim an affinity between the art of his era and, ‘the ancient metaphysical need of the German people’ (‘dem uralten metaphysischen Bedürfnis der Deutschen’, Fechter 1914: 29). Although without the chauvinism, in the same year Adolf Behne invoked the ‘Gothic’ heritage for the modern German painters in a review of the autumn exhibition at the Sturm gallery (Washton Long 1993: 60-63). The context of this present article lies in the short window directly related to the misfortunes of war and revolution at the beginning of the Weimar Republic. No sooner had the tendency and its romantic links to the Northern Renaissance found acceptance in this climate, than the ‘End of Expressionism’ would be signalled by many once-fervent supporters. Paul Westheim was not least among those to remark in 1920 on the reduction of Expressionism to a ‘catchphrase’ (West: 83). 

[7] Committed always to representations of the human figure, Ernst Barlach avoided any alignment with abstract tendencies. Nonetheless, the fact that his work, when exhibited in a room shared with Edvard Munch at the above-mentioned Sonderbund exhibition of 1912, would be reviewed under the Expressionist heading, is evidence of the broad spectrum of this tendency (Bushart 1990: 59). Certainly, by 1918, Barlach’s art and allegiances manifest distinctive features of German Expressionism (Doppelstein, Probst and Stockhaus 1998; Beloubek-Hammer 2013). Already a renowned sculptor, playwright, and lithographic printmaker, Barlach began making woodcuts in the autumn of 1918, in direct response both to material shortages and to depleted emotional circumstances (Barlach 1968: 538). The six published woodcut projects include a set of illustrations to The Foundling, a drama of his own invention, in addition to large single-sheet works and an allegorical visual cycle, The Transformations of God (Laur 2001). Peopled with troubled types struggling with the elements, the uncompromising formal conditions of the woodcuts echo the stark themes of faith and human fallibility. Thus the first series, Der Kopf, consists of ten illustrations to a narrative poem by the Russian émigré writer, Reinhold von Walter (Walter 1919; Laur 2007: cat. nos 55-55.11). Centred on the despotic rule of a paraplegic beggar, despair hangs in the rags of characters in a pitiless world suspended somewhere between revolutionary Russia and a late-medieval plague town (figure 3). This series was followed by seven single-sheet works of 1919, all of which stand out as masterworks in this oeuvre. On first seeing these – including Christ in Gethsemane – in the Berlin Secession the following year, the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) declared herself ‘bowled over’: ‘Ernst Barlach has found his path’, she remarked in her diary, ‘and I have not as yet found mine’ (‘Da sah ich etwas, was mich ganz umschmiss, das waren Barlachsche Holzschnitte … Barlach hat seinen Weg gefunden und ich hab ihn noch nicht gefunden’, Kollwitz 1989: 476-7). Having sought for years to find an artistic expression adequate to the grief experienced on losing her son Peter in the first months of fighting in 1914, she subsequently went on to publish her powerful series War in this medium in 1923 (Knesebeck 2002).

Figure 3: Ernst Barlach, The Beggar Majesty, woodcut, illustration to the poem Der Kopf by Reinhold von Walter, 1919, 14.2 x 12.5 cm (Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow)

1 The ‘Gothic Spirit’ and Expressionist art history

[8] The writings of Paul Westheim display a clear allegiance to a widespread phenomenon in which adherents of Expressionist art sought legitimacy in a heritage that stretched back to the spiritual worldview of the Middle Ages; a period extended in line with the emotional register well into what is now classified as the Northern Renaissance.  Entitled ‘von den inneren Gesichten’ (‘On the Inner Visions’), Westheim’s opening essay to the first edition of his Journal Das Kunstblatt (1917: 1-6) follows this discourse on the spiritual character of contemporary art. Ernst Barlach is listed amongst those artists in whose work ‘the coincidental, the purely visible recedes, and from the spiritual element, which is form, the new, visionary type of art work is constructed with its own integral order’ (‘das Zufällige, das Nur-Sehbare sinkt ab als etwas Belangloses, und aus dem geistigen Element, das die Form ist, baut sich eine in sich geschlossene Ordnung, das neue visionär geschaute Kunstwerk, auf’, 1917: 2). Before attention turns to that very question of ‘visibility’, it is important to acknowledge the influence on Westheim’s ‘visionary’ claims of art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881-1965). Hugely influential after its publication in 1911, Worringer’s Formprobleme der Gotik (1927) cemented the binary argument of his doctoral thesis, Abstraction and Empathy of 1908 (1963). In both works, the harmonious symmetry of the classical worldview – which is ascribed to ‘empathy’ – is opposed to the ‘abstract’ spiritual quest inherent to ‘the ceaseless melody of the northern line’ (a chapter heading in Form in Gothic). Perhaps the most influential of Worringer’s ideas was that the spread of the Italian Renaissance across Northern Europe represented an alien tendency that led to ‘The catastrophe of the Northern Renaissance’ (1927: 67). It suits Worringer’s emotional stance to claim Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Elder as exceptions who remained, ‘closely allied to the Gothic’. Until, that is, Dürer too, ‘became an absolute martyr to this clash of two worlds of artistic expression which were fundamentally incompatible’ (1927: 117). Critical scholarship on Wilhelm Worringer highlights the subjective methodology, with its racialist arguments and a porosity of historical and geographical boundaries (Donahue 1995; Smith 2014: 4-7). Magdalena Bushart’s Der Geist der Gotik und die expressionistische Kunst examines the impact on a German avant-garde’s search for ancestry (‘Ahnensuche’) of Worringer’s intuitive antagonism between Gothic and Renaissance (Bushart 1990: 13). Bushart’s evaluation of Worringer’s potent notion of the ‘heimliche Gotik’ (‘secret Gothic’ – translated as ‘latent’ in the English edition; Worringer 1927: 181) describes how this style effectively goes to ground throughout the European Renaissance, to reappear in Northern Europe at intervals across history when the ‘Weltanschauung’ again enters a transcendental mode (1990: 51).

[9] If, for Worringer, the cathedral was the pinnacle of a spiritual endeavour, then this quality was also to be found in a modest work on paper. This fact is highlighted by Christian Weikop, who in his assessment of the Brϋcke artists’ reception of these arguments, points to a passage from Worringer’s work on Lucas Cranach from 1908: ‘The Gothic cathedral that in ardent excelsior presses heavily against the sky is the same phenomenon as the small woodcut: the scale is different, but the spirit that lives in both is the same.’ (2005: 63). Weikop’s observation on references to ‘monumentality’ in reviews of the Gothic-inspired chapel at the Cologne Sonderbund of 1912 offers an important precedent for interpreting analogies between tectonic and pictorial structure in Westheim’s critique, to be explored below (2005: 64-5). Worringer’s persuasive argument for an ‘expressive art’ is developed further in Die altdeutsche Buchillustration (1912), where the woodcut is presented as the chief preserve of an abstract tendency in refuge from Renaissance realism:

[The woodcut is] … the most Nordic of all art, because its entire technique offered the most points of contact for this modified, unrealistic, Nordic expressive art. After Nordic art everywhere became disoriented by the Roman issue of figuration, it remains the natural refuge of autochthonic expressive art. (Matthews and Chapman 2014: 94)

Published in Munich by Reinhard Piper – also publisher, in 1912, of the Blaue Reiter Almanac and Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art – Worringer’s emotional arguments for a ‘latent Gothic’ quite understandably fell on fertile ground. Emphasising the unintentional nature of this, Magdalena Bushart describes how, nonetheless, Worringer’s formula of the Geist acted like a ‘psychogramm’ on a growing theory of Expressionism (1990: 51). It is worth adding here that scholars of the early period agree on the emotional impact of this formula on a bruised national sensibility in the aftermath of war. Thus, Parshall and Schoch write under the title ‘Lost in the Wood’, how,

After World War 1 Worringer’s amalgam of the Gothic, the woodcut, and expressionism was increasingly accepted by many authors, including serious art historians, and as a matter of course blended with an irrational, nationalistic ideology. (2005: 12)

2 Monuments on the page  

[10] With its overbearing monopoly on meaning, the rhetoric of the Geist appears to offer a relief of sorts to the wounded collective psyche. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the art of woodcut both old and new, where after 1918 those idealist arguments for linear strength and abstract strivings reach something of a solid state. In reviewing the reception by Westheim and others, one encounters a somatosensory register which, I argue, serves to elucidate the cultural power wielded by Worringer’s persuasive narrative. Examining some parallels between these texts and the psychology of visual perception, this section considers preliminary evidence for a hypothetical visible relief. A special issue of Das Kunstblatt published in the summer of 1918 began with Westheim’s editorial, ‘der Holzschnitt und Monumentalkunst’ (1918). Here and in his later book-length study, Westheim adopts those porous historical boundaries outlined above. Drawing a critical demarcation between late-Gothic and Renaissance production, he deplores how the ‘supremely artistic thinking’ that inhabits even the most rudimentary fifteenth-century print gives way to the ‘unstructured intellectualism’ of the Renaissance aesthetic. This ‘Gestaltloser Intellektualismus’, in the original German, implies a loss of visual strength; and the powerful effect of the whole (1921: 67). Perhaps the most striking feature of the earlier essay is his claim that this historical body of work is the discovery of ‘those who are gasping for monumentality’ (die heute nach Monumentalität Lechzenden, 1918, 51). Before investigating this claim, it is worth citing another case of supremely emotional viewing from the same special issue. In his praise for a new facsimile edition of prints from the Lübeck Bible (1494), critic Hans Wahl writes that it is no coincidence that art historians such as Wilhelm Worringer have turned their attention to this work. Reading this, it must strike us as curious that this author should deny expressly that very art-historical ‘mediation’ to which he has knowingly signed up:

The bitter art of this powerful talent transmits a timelessness which reaches beyond the formal conditions of its own lifetime and stands closer to the pulse of our time – even without art-historical mediation – than any number of art works that survive from the aesthetic canon of other centuries past.

Trägt doch die herbe Kunst dieses starken Könners etwas Zeitloses in sich, das über die formale Bedingtheit seiner Lebenstage hinausreicht und dem Pullsschlag unserer Zeit – ohne kunstgeschichtliche Vermittlung – näher steht, als unendlich viel, das vom ästhetischen Kanon vergangener Jahrhunderte lebt.

(Wahl 1918: 62)

[11] As the ‘Monumentalkunst’ essay develops, Westheim takes up Worringer’s position on the artist Albrecht Dürer. Comparing a sheet from the 1498 Apocalypse cycle to one from the Life of the Virgin, printed in 1511 (figures 4 & 5), he observes a transition from a ‘Gothic’ surface dynamic, to ‘Renaissance’ concerns with narrative realism (1918: 48). The ‘monumental’ status of the earlier cycle rests on a visual strength derived from the powerful effect of the whole, where:

The line is primarily not simply the limit of a physical form, not purely a means of making one figure stand out in relation to its neighbour. It has its own value, speaks as line, as formative element and has its own position in the overall plan of the surface … Like the column it has both a pictorial expression and at the same time exists and has its rightful place only as a vital member of an architectonic whole.   

Die Linie ist zunächst nicht nur Begrenzung eines Körperlichen, nicht nur Mittel, um die Figur im Gegensatz zur benachbarten Figur zur Anschauung zu bringen. Sie hat Eigenwert, spricht als Linie, als Formelement und hat ihre Stellung im Gesamtplan der Fläche. … Wie die Säule ist sie voll bildnerischen Ausdrucks und zugleich hat sie Existenz und Halt nur als Glied eines architektonischen Ganzen.

(1918: 48)

Figure 4: Albrecht Dürer, Apocalypse: The Four Horsemen 1497-8, 39.8 x 28.4 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Figure 5: Albrecht Dürer, The Birth of the Virgin, woodcut 1503,  29.7 x 20.8 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)

By comparison to this fundamentally ‘tectonic’ function, the sheet from the Life of the Virgin shows the subordination of the line to the new illusionistic purpose. Thus, Westheim points to its loss of visibility: as if swallowed up in service to the narrative, ‘[the line] disappears, just as sustenance taken in by the body is ultimately dispersed around the organism’ (In dem Ensemble, … geht sie [die Linie] unter, wie Nahrung, die der Körper aufnimmt, im Organismus schlieβlich aufgeht. 1918: 49-50). Further evidence of what could be termed a ‘Dürer paradigm’ comes from Westheim’s contemporary, art historian Max Friedländer. Emphasising the visual power of the same Apocalypse cycle, this author too highlights the linear dynamic which, he claims, communicates the artist’s sensitivity to the ‘storm that hung in the air’ in anticipation of the oncoming Reformation (‘Seine empfindliche Seele fϋhlte den Sturm, der in in der Luft lag, der sich in dem geistigen Aufruhr der Reformation entladen sollte’ 1921: 44):

Before any other process, before engraving or painting, the woodcut proves equal to the task of registering the deep and rumbling current. Indeed, this rough and ready language, formed according to tradition of lines equally black and almost equal in width, has never sounded so personal and with such ceaseless fortissimo. The line is charged with unchained activity, it strikes sharp as an arrow, flaming, licking; rises up, and seems loaded throughout with a determined force.

Der Holzschnitt erweist sich vor anderen Verfahren, vor dem Kupferstich und vor der Malerei fähig, den tiefen und brausenden Strom aufzunehmen. Freilich hat die ϋberkommene derbe Sprache der gleichmäβig schwarzen und annähernd gleichmäβig breiten Linien bisher nie so persönlich in ununterbrochenem Fortissimo geklungen. Unbändige Aktivität ist in die Linie gefahren, die pfeilspitz zustöβt, flammt, zϋngelt, sich bäumt und in jedem Punkte mit Willenskraft wie geladen zu sein scheint.

(1921: 45-6)

[12] In Westheim’s book-length das Holzschnittbuch, the condition of monumentality emerges as a tangible connection between the woodcut’s cultural power – including its spiritual connotations – and its material conditions, across the ages. For instance, in relation to late-fifteenth century woodcuts, which include a page from a block book dating from 1478, by Anton Sorg of Augsburg, he writes:

The characteristic feature of these woodcuts, their tectonic strength, rests precisely on the generosity of a linear process achieved almost in spite of the technical conditions, that often angular and hard-edged quality which results from the handling of the knife.

Das Charakteristische dieser frühen Holzschnitte, ihre tektonische Kraft, beruht ja gerade auf der Groβzügigkeit ihrer Linienführung, die beim Hantieren mit dem Messer oft eckig und kantig geradezu gegen die Technik durchgesetzt worden ist.

(1921: 42)

It is explicitly this quality which connects the early-German woodcut and the work of his contemporaries:  

The common ground consists in certain inner creative tendencies which spring from the same intentions: the striving for monumentality, for a tectonic surface rhythm, and for a handcrafted simplicity.

Gemeinsamkeit besteht in gewissen inneren Schaffenstendenzen, die gleichen Antrieben entstpringen: dem Streben nach Monumentalität, nach Flächentektonik und -rhythmik, nach handwerklicher Simplizität.

(1921: 8)

[13] Westheim’s focal example for his formula of monumentality is a print of Saint Christopher dating from the first half of the fifteenth century (figure 2). The object in question is an uncoloured sheet, in the collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, printed from a damaged block that has been dated to c. 1430 (Parshall and Schoch 2005: 159-60). A related version of this composition – believed to have originated in the South German production centre of Ulm – is the fine, coloured work, known as the ‘Buxheim’ Saint Christopher, in the Rylands library in Manchester (figure 6) (Schmidt 2005: 153-6). Complete with iconographic details from the saint’s legend, the latter work bears an inscription which reads, ‘whenever you look at the face of Christopher, in truth, you will not die a terrible death that day. Such an inscription is pertinent to assertions regarding the power of the image, such as are made by Westheim with regard to the Nuremburg version. And on this note, Peter Schmidt confirms the ‘religio-magical’ associations of images of this particular saint (2005: 156). Recent scholarship by Edward Potten throws fascinating light on the anomaly of the inscribed date (2023). Given as 1422, this has long been a subject of debate amongst scholars, in whose opinion this is very unlikely in a work of such evident sophistication (Schmidt 2005).[1]

Figure 6: ‘Buxheim’ St Christopher woodcut, South German, c. 1430, 29.8 x 21 cm (University of Manchester, John Rylands Library)

[14] As he expands on the monumental status of his Saint Christopher, Westheim identifies a pictorial convention derived from centuries of ecclesiastical art and architecture: his ‘tectonic’ line of argument again (1921: 67). Observing how the linear structures from that context have become condensed into a relief print for multiple production, he extols the skill of the Formschneider, whose fluidly carved image, ‘lies equally embedded in the surface, takes life from that ground, divides and co-ordinates it, creates of black and white something rhythmic and in motion.’ (Das Linienbild liegt gleichsam eingebettet in dem Flächengrund, lebt aus ihm heraus, teilt ihn auf, gliedert ihn, macht aus Schwarz und Weiss ein rhythmisch Bewegtes, 1921: 67). With their insistence on material authenticity, Westheim’s terms of engagement with this early single sheet display the same Germano-centric, anti-Italian-Renaissance stance outlined above. While they dispute the ‘popular’ status lauded by Westheim and contemporaries, nonetheless Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch acknowledge some legitimacy in claims that such products were made by artisans working largely outside the hierarchical structures of a developing Renaissance aesthetic: ‘The early relief print closed the distance between object and respondent. The Renaissance gradually required that distance to be re-established’ (2005: 3). We also read of these single sheet examples that, ‘the[ir] raison-d’être lay foremost in the gravity of their subject matter’ and, furthermore, that evidence of the special treatment of early relief prints, ‘testifies to their potency as individual objects of wonderment and delight’ (2005: 3). The opinion of these scholars, therefore, suggests some credence for Westheim’s arguments for visual strength and didactic religious purpose.

[15] According to convention, single-sheet woodcuts such as the Nuremberg Saint Christopher were designed with a view to their being coloured by another hand on public demand; a fact which inspires in Westheim a particular admiration for a strong, spare image, designed, ‘so that even an inferior, unskilled workman could not spoil things too much’ (‘das auch ein untergeordneter Handlanger nicht viel verderben konnte’, 1921: 30). In connection with the simplicity factor, Westheim pays particular attention to the way in which an economy of means strengthens the impression on ‘the whole person’. The succinct term with which he conveys this emerges as something of a fulcrum to arguments for affectivity:

The Prägnanz available [to the artist] in a simple, unfussy work of handcraft suited him perfectly. As is the case for the modern woodcutter, indeed for today’s artistic youth in general, for him the ethos was more important than the refined appearance of the finished work.

Die Prägnanz, die eine einfache, ungekünselte handwerkliche Arbeitsweise ihm zu geben vermochte, war ihm gerade recht. Es ging ihm wie auch dem modernen Holzschneider, wie der heutigen Kunstjugend überhaupt, mehr um das Ethos als den Wohllaut des Geformten.

(1921: 183)

Further prioritising the whole over the parts, that term Prägnanz is best interpreted in relation to the German verb ‘prägen’ – to imprint. In this sense, it implies a concise impression stamped in relief form that bears considerable resonance with medieval theories of vision. While she does not employ this term explicitly, nonetheless, Elina Gertsman’s article on the theme of Christ in the Wine Press offers a convincing parallel for discussion (2013).[2] Of particular interest is this author’s elucidation of the ancient theory of intromission: the notion whereby vision (interchangeable here with memory) was described in terms of a wax tablet which receives an impression like a seal. Her assertion that such notions of ‘mnemonic stamping’ and of somatic seeing in general provide an instance where ‘metaphor and physiology collide’ (2013: 329) is, it seems, of direct relevance to the writings of Paul Westheim. As in the original liturgical context described by Gertsman, Westheim too would claim to feel a pain directly related to the tear of the tools in the wooden block when viewing a fifteenth-century print.

Perhaps the initial shock was simply due to the fact that the eye, the closer one examined these objects, became sharpened for the violence which – in an entirely primitive sense – could inhabit a line torn into the wood by a sharp iron.

Vielleicht war das Überwältigende zunächts gar nichts anderes, als dass das Auge, je weiter man sich in diese Dinge hineinsah, geschärft wurde für die Gewalt, die – ganz primitiv gesprochen – einer von scharfem Eisen in Holz gerissenen Linie innewohnen könne.

(1918: 42-3)

If Westheim’s invocation of an act of violence heightens the somatic register of his arguments for tangible form, it also recalls the primitivist elements of Expressionist discourse as outlined in my introduction and in relation to Wilhelm Worringer. Of particular relevance to my working argument for visible relief is the manner in which Westheim’s reference to the ‘sharpened eye’ appears to articulate the conditions of Prägnanz as featured in the Gestalt theories of perception established by Max Wertheimer and associates working in Frankfurt and Berlin after 1910 (King & Wertheimer 2005; Ellis 1955). In this field, the term Prägnanz describes the parsimonious process by which the visual brain reduces a complex visual array into a meaningful structure. A familiar name to art historians is Rudolf Arnheim, whose book Art and Visual Perception (1974) applied Wertheimer’s experiments to the field of art. In Arnheim’s text, Prägnanz stands for a ‘tendency to the good whole configuration’ (1974: 155-6). Being an occurrence shared between the physical structure of the artwork and the physiology of the visual brain, it describes a function whereby vision works, ‘to make perceptual structure as clear-cut as possible’ (1974: 161).

[16] To return to Paul Westheim, his woodcut studies make no explicit reference to contemporary psychology beyond the common usage of ‘Gestalt’ for a whole structure. Nonetheless, that leitmotif of monumentality employs remarkable parallels to the terminology of visual perception. Compare for example his reference to the line as a ‘vital member of the architectonic whole’ in Dürer’s Apocalypse cycle of 1498 (see above) with Max Wertheimer’s definition of the Gestalt, as published in the journal Psychologische Forschung in 1921. Here, ‘Gestalten are integrated, articulate structures or systems in which the constituent parts are in dynamic interrelation to each other and with the whole’ (King & Wertheimer: 155). Before further attention to this field, the focus turns to Westheim’s contemporary Ernst Barlach, who shared with the critic an admiration for early German works and the sense of urgency in relation to his times.

3 ‘A technique that forces a confession’

[17] An analysis of examples from the woodcut oeuvre of Ernst Barlach offers further evidence for this medium as a source of ‘visible relief’ after 1918. In this context, the combined reparative effects of the cultural heritage and of the somatosensory elements of the making are both likely factors in a sentiment communicated in December of that year: ‘In order not to fall apart, I have learned a new technique and have thrown myself into the woodcut. The furious work has helped me get through recent months’. (‘Ich habe, um nicht auseinanderzufallen, eine neue Technik gelernt und mich auf den Holzschnitt geworfen, das half mir mit wütender Arbeit über die letzten Monate hinweg’, Barlach 1968: 533).

[18] Barlach was very familiar with Wilhelm Worringer’s emotional model of the ‘Gothic spirit’, having received that author’s publications from his friend the publisher Reinhard Piper: ‘Everything by W[orringer], I find astonishing’ (‘Alles von W ist mir überraschend’) he wrote in a letter of 1911 (Barlach 1968: 374). Further evidence of this allegiance – and an accompanying flexibility in historical parameters – comes indeed from Paul Westheim, who recalled their meeting in Barlach’s hometown of Güstrow. As they sat in front of sixteenth-century carvings of the apostles in the cathedral, the artist remarked that, ‘I live a little like a medieval artisan, who has his work and his bread and for whom the world consists of his workshop and his work’ (‘Ich lebe wie so ein mittlealterlicher Handwerker, der seine Arbeit und sein Brot hat, und für den die Welt seine Werkstatt und seine Arbeit ist’, Jansen 1975: 469). Paradigmatically alert to the ‘medieval’ mode, critics of the time would also comment in haptic terms on the material element and the heaviness of the expression in the woodcuts. A good example comes from Emil Waldmann, writing in 1920:

It was to be expected that Barlach, the greatest modern master of wood sculpture, would in the field of graphics sooner or later also take up the knife. He must have felt finally that lithography is not adequate to the heavy momentum and the urgency of his visions, that these simply required more resistance from the material than is offered by the lithographic process.

Es war zu erwarten, dass Barlach, der gröβte moderne Meister der Holzplastik, auch auf dem Gebiete der Graphik früher oder später zum Schneidemesser greifen würde. Er muss empfunden haben, dass auf die Dauer der Steindruck der Wucht und die Eindringlichkeit seiner Gesichte nicht nachkommen könnte, dass diese schon aus dem Material mehr Widerstand brauchten, als die Lithographie von Haus aus zu geben hat.

(Jansen 1975: 86)

Material resistance and its urgent visual impact, not to mention that ‘heavy momentum’: these are all prime features of Westheim’s concept of monumentality. At the same time, such emotive terms echo Barlach’s cathartic attitude to his work. On completion of the series of single sheets in 1919 (Laur: cats 57-66), he wrote to his cousin, ‘I’d almost like to entice you to try the woodcut … It is a technique that forces a confession, compels one to say in no uncertain terms what one really means’ (‘fast möchte ich Dich zum Holzschneiden verführen, es ist eine Technik, die zum Bekenntnis herausfordert, zum unmissverständlichen Darlegen dessen, was man letztlich wirklich meint’, Barlach 1968: 569). For the pronounced symmetry of means and pictorial message, works in this series qualify for monumental status according to Westheim’s rule. A prime example of this is Gruppe im Sturm (figure 7), a work which stands as a tangible portrait of the wind, where the fluid interaction of black and white line, broken here and there by a broad plane of white space, serves to bend the figures into a continual relief pattern. Were one to extend the sensory response here to the audible, then that would strike a chord with Max Friedländer’s response to the ‘ceaseless fortissimo’ in Dürer’s Apocalypse cycle, cited above. Westheim’s term Prägnanz is certainly appropriate to the force of an impression carved from a resistant material and as if by the force of the elements.

Figure 7: Ernst Barlach, Group in a Storm, woodcut 1919, 18.2 x 13 cm (Ernst Barlach Stiftung Gϋstrow)

[19] It is above all in the central work of Christ in Gethsemane (figure 1) that the artist pursued an ambition ‘to be compared to the old masters’ (getraue ich mir, neben den alten Meistern vorzustellen? Barlach 1968: 578). The work is constructed from a minimal but plastic formal economy, defined by a ponderous surface rhythm that unites the figure, the contorted landscape of the Mount of Olives and the sleeping apostles enfolded in the exposed roots of the trees. Kneeling on the sweep of furrowed ground, His body collapsed heavily forwards, both the body of the Christ figure with its heavy drapery and the deeply lined face together set the mournful tone of the whole. The supporting arms, rigid under the weight of the body, rest on bony hands clasped tightly one over the other in agonistic form.

[20] A comparison to the iconographical tradition as manifest in prints by sixteenth-century German masters with whom Barlach would have been familiar raises interesting observations regarding his adaptation of pictorial convention. This adaptation is designed, one can argue, to heighten the human element of suffering over the sacred intent behind the episode of ‘The Agony in the Garden’, as told in the Gospels (Schiller: 51). In this respect, Volker Probst and Elisabeth Laur posit an amalgam of two poses from the iconography of the Passion, in the example of two German woodcut masters of the sixteenth century (Laur and Probst 2001: 18). One of these is Albrecht Dürer’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, from the Small Passion of 1510 (figure 8).

Figure 8: Albrecht Dürer, The Agony in the Garden (The Small Passion) woodcut 1510, 12.7 x 9.7 cm (National Galleries Scotland – creative commons)

In this work, Christ is shown kneeling upright in prayer, with the apostles Peter, James and John on either side, and a vision of an angel with cross in the clouds at top left (Schoch 2002: 302). According to Gertrud Schiller, the upright prayer stance is a standard feature of this theme in the Northern Renaissance from the fifteenth century onwards (Schiller, 51). Barlach’s other model is Christ Carrying the Cross by Hans Holbein the Younger, of 1522 (figure 9).

Figure 9: Hans Holbein the Younger, Christ Carrying the Cross woodcut 1522 (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The position of the foot in Barlach’s print, the drapery folds and the despairing facial expression are all closely aligned to the Holbein work. Commenting on the hybrid composition, Laur and Probst suggest that this serves to prefigure the burden that stands before Christ. At the same time,

[however,] the stance expresses an inner resistance; the kneeling Christ appears to be straining against an imaginary cross. The result is to convey both a rebellion against the pain and the acknowledgement that it is an inevitable part of life.

die Haltung drückt jedoch einen inneren Widerstand aus; der Knieende scheint sich gegen ein imaginäres Kreuz zu stemmen. Dadurch kommt in dieser Figur sowohl Auflehnung gegen das Leid, als auch die Einsicht zum Ausdruck, dass es unabwendbar ist und einen Teil des Lebens bildet.

(2001: 18)

Of Barlach’s apostles, bound into the contours of the landscape, two are more prominent: in particular, the reclining figure above and to the right of Christ appears to mirror somewhat the features of the main figure, especially in the sharp angle of the hooked left foot. Further figures shrouded in heavy hoods, while hard to distinguish from the gnarled roots and rocky mounds, show some resemblance to prominent motifs from Barlach’s wood sculpture.[3]

[21] Formed within the iconography of the Passion, therefore, yet the print belongs squarely in the contemporary context announced in the artist’s statement regarding this group of works and the ‘misery of our times’. Departing from the Renaissance standard, Barlach reduces the expression into selective pictorial elements necessary to communicate both dread and an indistinguishable hope. Notably too, those emotions find an environmental resonance in the sweep of churned up ground that might be interpreted as a reference to the battlefields of the recent conflict. The intimation of an autobiographical investment in the composition is suggested by a letter written during the time of its making, in which he confesses to an idea of generalised martyrdom: not as a dogma, but with a fearful sense of hope and expectancy, ‘like He in Gethsemane’ (Barlach 1968: 574). Equally intriguing, I suggest, is the visible evidence, across the sculpture and graphics, of a distinct form of morphological collapse that has occurred since 1914. The chief comparative work in this instance is the figure of The Avenger. First modelled in plaster in the opening months of war, its soaring planes were later carved in chestnut (1922) and subsequently cast in bronze (1930-34) (Laur and Probst 2006: cat. nos 228/229/349). A diary reference to the work which the artist referred to as ‘the Berserker’ leaves us in no doubt of the belligerent mood in which it came about: ‘The Berserker represents for me the crystallisation of war, the storm against all obstacle, that gives us faith’, he wrote in August 1914 (Der Berserker ist mir der cristallisierte Krieg, der Sturm über Alles Hindernis, so dass mans glaubt.’ Barlach 2007: 54). By contrast, the dense, sunken folds of Christ’s robe, compressed into the woodcut relief, appear like a sad remnant of the stiff wings of The Avenger’s battle dress. A study of the original printing block provides a deeper apprehension of the effort and mental agility invested in the work and an inside view of what, on the paper surface, presents us with a sheer optical fact of black and white with no grey areas. As with other printing blocks preserved in the archive in Gϋstrow, the graceful ribs and gleaming hollows of the Christ block show the mastery of an accomplished sculptor working in a tight-grained fruitwood (figure 10). Immediately visible is the remarkable rhythmic unity between deep curves and sweeps of cloth, limb, gnarled trees and resting humps of apostles. Barlach’s method was to transfer a carefully prepared drawing, or ‘Pause’ to the surface of the block, and thence to carve clear grooves and hollows, leaving the finely worked ribs in salient relief.

Figure 10: Ernst Barlach, woodblock to Christ in Gethsemane 1919, fruitwood, 20.5 x 25.4 x 1.3 cm   (Ernst Barlach Stiftung Gϋstrow, photograph Niccola Shearman)

No transfer drawing exists for this work, but two preparatory charcoal drawings reveal his changing idea of the composition (Laur, Probst and Wittbold, 2013: cat. nos 1630 /31). This careful working ensured the clarity of contrast when inked block and dampened paper were put through the printing press. Contradictory though it might seem for an artist so dedicated to the feel and look of wood, Barlach appears to have deliberately avoided those accidental material traces which in the practice of earlier Expressionists, for instance, feature as flecks of organic spontaneity on the surface of the final print. Smoothed and uniformly darkened by multiple printings, Barlach’s neatly carved blocks diverge from the experience of physical pain that a reading of Westheim would lead us to expect. However, a lack of ‘violence’ does not preclude the perception of a physical force in the apprehension of the relief carving, where each line is the result of an exacting process of excavation. What we see is a tight web of raised bars, shored up from beneath in order to concentrate that material weight in the printing of a salient relief. In bringing the viewer closer to the labour and concentration invested by the artist, the material encounter arguably illuminates the emotional affectivity of this work. Viewed in the sequence of their making, from the plastic formation of the block to its imprint on the paper, the salient lines and hollowed space that make up the Christ composition take on an independence: a concentrated pictorial rhythm that underpins the emotive iconography. Here, I suggest, in the dynamic conducted by those equal ribbons of black and white relief, lies the ‘confession’ of which Barlach spoke. In a related sense, this is an example of the material resistance which caused the critic Waldmann, cited above, to write of the ‘the heavy momentum and urgency’ in a Barlach print. Furthermore, evidence of a physical pressure retained in the transferral from carved block to imprint on paper provides us with another instance of Paul Westheim’s Prägnanz criterion. If the overall emotion induced in the viewer is one of sympathy, then this too has an iconographical and literary heritage of which the artist would have been aware. For instance, Jeffrey Hamburger includes reference to a woodcut of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane in his evaluation of fifteenth-century prints associated with the devotional text Meditationes vitae Christi (c. 1336); the combined effect of word and image intended to induce an internalisation of Christ’s sufferings (2009).[4] Accordingly, Barlach’s print exhorts the viewer to ‘suffer with’ the Christ figure as in that earlier liturgical context, albeit transposed to secular experience in the aftermath of a modern war. Such continuities in the affective features of works on the Gethsemane theme support Westheim’s claims regarding the shared concerns in artists of both periods. In refining the argument for emotional viewing and visible relief, the final section to this article proceeds from the context of medieval piety to the psychology of perception, looking beyond the sympathy traditionally associated with the iconography of the Passion to one of empathy. An emphasis on the physiological component of this experience is an important factor in this argument.

4 A feeling for form

[22] A theory of empathy first emerged in the late-nineteenth-century borderlands between science and aesthetics. It has already been noted how Wilhelm Worringer developed his highly individual construction out of the work of Theodor Lipps (1851-1914). However, it was philosopher Robert Vischer (1847-1933) who first explored the ‘Einfühlungsvermögen’ in the essay ‘On the Optical Feeling for Form’ of 1873 (Mallgrave and Ikonomou 1994: 89-117). Notable for incorporating mind and body, this text posits a theory of a dynamic consciousness actively engaged in the perception of the environment and inanimate objects. Thus, for instance, we read how, ‘an objective but accidentally experienced phenomenon always provokes a related idea of the self in sensory or motor form’ (1994: 101). Writing further of the ability to feel oneself into an object in the external world, Vischer emphasises the physiological processes at work in visual experience: ‘I wrap myself in its contours as in a garment’ (1994: 101). The analogy to the weight of a garment perhaps invites intriguing comparison to the sense of gravity and momentum found in Barlach’s woodcuts. A means of introducing empathy theory and questions of psychological affectivity into contemporary art history arose in the work of David Freedberg, especially in his collaboration with neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, who was amongst discoverers of the workings of mirror neurons in the 1990s. Observing a basic vocabulary of grasping movements inherent to the neurons in the pre-motor cortex of monkeys, scientists at the University of Parma found that these would fire both on the activation of muscles engaged in a goal-directed action, and equally so, purely on observation of such an action in another subject (Freedberg & Gallese 2007). Considering further important connecting factors between the motion-detection specialisms in the lower areas of the visual cortex, and the higher cognitive and emotional centres, Freedberg has applied this theory to the figure drawings of the young Albrecht Dürer (Freedberg 2013).[5] Offering his findings as evidence for the psycho-physiological functions underpinning the tenacious appeal of Aby Warburg’s ‘Pathosformel’, he writes: ‘Pathosformel survive not just because of artistic convention, or the historical or iconographic tradition, but because of their biological suitability to the expression of an emotion or a set of emotions’ (2013: 47). Space does not permit further exploration of Warburg’s applications of empathy theory in this instance. However, it seems there is potential for a consideration of Barlach’s sculpture and prints within this same nexus of ideas.

[23] As Freedberg and Gallese expand on empathy theory, they maintain that this is not only applicable to figurative art, but that those same mirror neurons also enact the brain’s response to abstract compositions. In this case, the viewer experiences an emotional response to the residual trace of the artist’s physical action left behind in the work (2007: 199). Paul Westheim himself seems to anticipate this theory of empathy in a further reference to that Saint Christopher woodcut discussed above: 

The eye followed the curve of the carved line and experienced in its weighty flow something of the hand which had once felt the knife, and equally in this manner it [the eye] could detect the resistance of the wood structures when met with the tool.

Der Kurve einer Schnittlinie folgte das Auge und erlebte in der Schwingung etwas von der Kraft der Hand, die einst das Messer gefϋhlt hatte, und ebenso erlebte es nach die Wiederstände, die die Struktur des Holzes dem Stichel geboren hatte.

(Westheim 1918: 44)

[24] Could a similar occurrence explain the emotional impact of the Barlach work? Here is where the Gestalt theories that originated in the same period come to our assistance. For instance, Max Wertheimer’s formulation holds that empathy represents a dynamic which forms a bridge between physical expressions in the object of vision and the mind of the viewing subject, heightening the sense of a ‘vital situation’ (Ellis 1995: 9). In a related context, Rudolf Arnheim describes the process as an instance of ‘visual tension’ that occurs between the visual cortex and the apprehended object as the construction of a visual structure (or ‘percept’) is in progress. (1974: 438). Having attended to Barlach’s Christ in Gethsemane in its various stages of the work process, it is possible to suggest that something akin to Arnheim’s tension informs our perception of the pressure, applied firstly by knife to wood, then by the block to paper, subsequently to impress upon the visual brain. Evidence for empathy, in turn, affirms the work’s Prägnanz: that overriding condition for perceptual clarity which we have seen to belong equally in the woodcut critique as in the Gestalt context. In these combined respects, one can attribute a distinct monumentality to Barlach’s woodcut. It is one matter to acknowledge a strong emotional engagement for the pious viewer of devotional prints of the late Gothic and early Renaissance era. Yet to ascribe such ‘monumental’ affectivity to works produced in an apparently godless world (even if a religious iconography was still in play) requires another level of argument again. How could Westheim lay claim to that ‘craving for monumentality’? What was it in the works, old and new, that looked to a contemporary audience as if they cut straight to vital matters? Here there is one further context to consider, namely the perceptual and psychological turmoil resulting from the catastrophic shocks of war. It is chiefly in the literature from both sides of the conflict where one finds instances both of a dissolution of sensory boundaries and the opposite experience of intense sensation. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, vividly recounts the lack of physical boundaries between the sense of individual self and the chaotic environment of the trenches: ‘Our hands are earth, our bodies mud, our eyes puddles of rain’ (1996: 195). Also of relevance are the observations of literary historian Paul Fussell, in his World War and Modern Memory. Writing of the ‘pregnant polarity’ in accounts from the trenches, he cites ‘a fierce desire to rivet impressions’, in case each moment turned out to be the last (1977: 327). And the memoir of Oliver Lyttleton contains a striking expression of the somatosensory register examined so far in relation to relief printing. What is more, the ‘impressions’ evoked in this extract recall that medieval theory of intromission mentioned above.

Fear and its milder brothers, dread and anticipation, first soften the tablets of memory, so that the impressions which they bring are clearly and deeply cut, and when time cools them off the impressions are fixed like the grooves of a gramophone record and remain with you as long as your faculties. (1977: 327)

Although called up as reservists, neither Westheim nor Barlach served on the field of battle. However, according to the psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, it was evident that the war made demands not only on the nerves of combatants, but on those on the home front too (Kaes 2009: 7). Survivor’s guilt makes frequent appearances in Barlach’s wartime diary once the initial euphoria turns rapidly to dread at news of fallen friends and as he listens to the sound of hospital trains rolling by in the night (Barlach 2007).  

[25] A final reflection on questions of salient perceptual clarity looks to the observation of neuroscientist Semir Zeki, on the potential for a ‘perceptually explicit’ art form. This holds that, in the linear structures of abstract art in particular, there is a direct appeal to the basic on/off functions of the visual brain, beginning with simple retinal cells that are alert to distinctions of light and dark, lines, edges and orientation (Zeki 1999: 134). This selective function at the basis of the brain’s organisational logic can conceivably offer a means of interpreting the explicit pictorial logic of the black and white woodcut print, whereby extraneous detail is discarded in favour of a strong visual message. And just as the selective editing that occurs at lower levels of vision is part of a continuous process ranging across the brain’s cognitive mechanisms, so too, the modular parts of the art form gain their significance in relation to a dynamic whole.

[26] Of course, we are again on the borders of metaphor and physiology here, and the critical puzzle deepens once one seeks to establish the connection between those hard-wired features of visual processing and the higher emotional areas of the brain which respond in infinitely more complex ways to environmental events. While these questions will remain open, nonetheless it seems possible that the convergence in 1918 of traumatic experiences in war and its aftermath, and the heightened emotions surrounding a desire for a national cultural identity, could have ‘sharpened the eye’ in the manner suggested by Paul Westheim.


[27] With a focus on the years following the close of the First World War in Germany, this article set out to investigate the urgent emotional response to the art of woodcut, in objects from the Expressionist era and from the period straddling the late Middle Ages and early Northern Renaissance. The celebration of a German heritage in the afterlives of the early works can be ascribed in large part to the collective cultural cohesion that helped to heal the bruised sensibilities of an intellectual community defeated in war and humiliated on the world stage. Sealed by Wilhelm Worringer’s chauvinistic arguments for the transcendental quality of a ‘Gothic spirit’, the idea that a woodcut print might share the same structural expression as a cathedral was evidently a powerful one for critics such as Paul Westheim. His leitmotif of monumentality is the deciding factor in histories that begin with the crude products of artisanal Formschneider and reach a pinnacle in the middle of Albrecht Dürer’s printmaking practice. Striking today for its blatant subjectivity, that boundary drawn between a Germanic Middle Ages and an Italian Renaissance aesthetic of refinement is a clear symptom of the ‘psychogramm’ which Magdalena Bushart astutely attributes to Worringer’s influence. That the artist Ernst Barlach was equally persuaded of this value system only serves to underline the widespread emotional investment in apparently latent elements of a Germanic artistic heritage. His Christ in Gethsemane is a thoroughly convincing object in this framework.

[28] While the cultural factors are intriguing on their own merit, nonetheless there is another level to the emotional drama that demands attention. This relates to the pronounced register common to much of the reception that must be described in somatosensory terms. The discomfort one risks in highlighting emotive references to ‘Gospel’ truths and violent reactions is, I believe, justified by the understanding that results from a close consideration of statements about perceptual clarity. Thus, for instance, in Paul Westheim’s arguments for monumentality we find a repeated emphasis on a simple visual statement; on the vital function of the line in relation to a meaningful whole and indeed on the strengthening effect that the perception of such tectonic qualities has on the viewer; those who he claims are ‘gasping for monumentality’. In view of such heightened aesthetic response, it has been useful to examine parallels in an emerging Gestalt psychology, where the central factor of Prägnanz offers a plausible understanding for the perception of a ‘good whole’. While the breadth of material necessary for a full presentation of the question of emotional viewing in its dual temporalities precludes closer evaluation of Barlach’s work beyond one or two principle works, nonetheless, it would appear that the process was ‘good’ for the artist too. Not only does his reference to the ‘confession’ entailed in the work attest to a moral conviction: equally, we can trace for ourselves the effort invested in the excavation of a rhythmic relief structure which, in the Christ print, retains its tangible weight in the impression on paper. By bringing empathy theory into the equation alongside the sympathy that is a standard ingredient of the iconographic tradition of Christ’s Passion, I have attempted to evaluate how the viewer is able to ‘feel into’ the print’s relief structure. The point here is to consider how we can be moved as much by visual tension as by the emotional stimulus of the figurative content. In metaphorical and physiological terms, in the making as in the viewing, here is the visual relief which is a prime feature of woodcut reception.

[29] It should be stressed that any suggestion of a ‘good Gestalt’ for the woodcut medium is not intended as a value judgement. I would, however, contend that attention to the somatosensory appeal of salient visual structures makes a useful counterpoint to the numerous visionary claims and their burden of cultural chauvinism attached to both historical periods in question. To regard Paul Westheim’s condition of monumentality as a bridge between the cultural and the psycho-physiological power of the woodcut unquestionably serves to elucidate Reinhold Heller’s comment on the ‘palliative’ effect of the woodcut in this climate. And in a similar manner, I hope to have shown how a working theory of visible relief can be applied equally to the perceptual conditions and to the cultural narratives which in their combined force evidently answered a widespread desire for tangible artistic expression.


[1] Recording the use of multi-spectral imaging by the John Rylands Library which has helped to identify the distinctive bulls head watermark, Potten traces the paper for this sheet to a mill in the Swabian region, where the paper was likely to have been in production between 1428 and 1435 (2023). 

[2] In the embodied participation evoked, on the one hand, by woodcuts of Christ’s Passion, and on the other, by sermons intended to imprint the experience of Christ’s suffering on the hearts of the devout, Gertsman detects the influence of Latin and Arabic texts which described visual sensation as a ‘feeling from the impressions [species] that is a kind of pain’ (2013: 327ff).

[3] I would point here for instance to The Hooded Beggar of 1919 and to the collapsed half-figures in the front row of the Magdeburg Memorial of 1924 (Laur and Probst 2006: cats 279/429) 

[4] I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for drawing to my attention Sarah MacNamer’s study of the Meditationes vitae Christi, considered to have originated in Italy amongst a community of the Poor Clares. See Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

[5] In the analysis of an exceptional breakthrough of realism – in works including Study of the artist’s left leg from two viewpoints, 1493 – Freedberg suggests that it was the artist’s acute observation of his own hands, face and limbs, which allowed him, ‘to convey the emotions even their smallest movements entail and imply’ (Freedberg 2013: 41).


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Niccola Shearman

Niccola Shearman is a freelance art historian in the field of German and Austrian twentieth-century art, with teaching affiliations to the Courtauld Institute and the University of Manchester.  Research interests lie in printmaking, in theories of perception originating in the Gestalt school of psychologists and in the careers of women artists and writers in exile in the UK. Academic articles and book reviews have covered similar themes and she is currently working on a book based on her PhD thesis. Entitled Weimar in Black and White (2018), this examines the careers of Ernst Barlach and Lyonel Feininger against the background of an emotional investment in the woodcut print in Germany after the First World War.


My greatest thanks go to Juliet Simpson and Gabriele Rippl for including me in the fascinating project of Northern Renaissance Afterlives. I am deeply in debt to their patience and generosity throughout the editorial process. I am also very grateful to scholars of the Ernst-Barlach-Stiftung in Güstrow for their support with research questions and with images. I am especially indebted to the assistance of Dr Volker Probst, former director of that organisation, and to the DAAD for the opportunity to spend time there some years ago while working on my PhD. Apparently, I was the first person in years to ask to view the printing blocks, which were all neatly wrapped in the pink paper of the GDR newspaper Neues Deutschland, from 1982. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of this article for giving their time in constructive attention and advice. And to Shulamith Behr, who encouraged me tirelessly and provided essential critical guidance throughout my doctoral studies, I will remain forever grateful.

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