Saturday, March 26, 2016

Entry - 3.26.16

Memories are so elusive.  Once I’d thought my memories had foundations of stone only to find later that my childhood understanding of the past was filtered through a distorting prism, that phantom events had infiltrated my chronology or that significant happenings had escaped my notice entirely or were simply washed away by the passage of time.  After so many years, the line between fact and fabrication has blurred until I’m no longer sure of anything.  And so many of the people who defined my early life have died that there really are no authorities to turn to for a more reliable truth.  I’m left with my fragile memories, flawed as they are.  So perhaps this is not so much a history as it is a story.

 I was about three years old when my grandfather died, so I have only the vaguest memories of him.  He was a gentle, smiling man who loved children.  He tried to engage me and entertain me with silly games and tricks.  Photos of him from this period show a man depleted by a long battle with lung cancer, his small frame wasted away, his head skull-like.  His visage could easily have unnerved an adult, but, being such a young child, I kept my own perspective.

Domenico Ghirlandaio - An Old Man and his Grandson - 1480
 He was found by my grandmother in his favorite armchair where he had settled for an afternoon nap.  Though I remember little of that time, I was told that the loss struck my mother and grandmother hard.  My grandmother retreated into herself, her natural gregariousness giving way to silent introspection.  Over time, she mended, or so I assume since I can only remember her shy laughter and her smiling, welcoming face.  Even from the most horrendous storms and upheavals, nature cures herself, and we are no different.  There were trips to the cemetery where my mother and grandmother would place flowers on my grandfather’s grave and we children would be scolded for darting and careening amongst the headstones.  I was fascinated by the flags and the flowers and the endless rows of perfectly aligned, identical headstones.

Unbeknownst to me a seismic shift was occurring in my young life, one that would impact on most of my childhood years.  Devoted to her family, my mother determined that my grandmother would be visited on a weekly basis.  So every Saturday my parents, my siblings and I would make the hour drive to my grandmother’s home to keep her company.  We would arrive in the early afternoon and wouldn’t leave until quite late – commonly after midnight.  When I was very young, I didn’t mind this routine.  My grandmother lived with Pete the Parakeet and an ornery, gray-muzzled dog named Smokey in a sprawling house with gingerbread colored, asphalt siding that my grandfather had built himself.  Early on, it all seemed pretty magical, but, as I got older, I grew to resent losing one day of my precious weekend… after what I considered an endless week of schoolwork.  I wanted to be at home with my things, my own routines and, most importantly, my friends from the neighborhood.

Our visits to my grandmother attained a routine of their own.  Shortly after our arrival, the children were scooted out to the yard “to play” – as if once out the door we would spontaneously erupt into fun and games.  Watching television was the great Satan of my childhood, and my parents forcefully encouraged my siblings and me to find less passive, more enriching activities to occupy our time.  So we would usually go out to the large detached garage that was set at the end of a long cement driveway that flanked the house to rock in the green wicker rockers that crowded about the structure’s doorway.  When we got bored with that we might walk to the nearby schoolyard to play on the swings and jungle gym or climb a tree.  As reward for our efforts we were handed a few bucks and sent to Babbitt’s, a small neighborhood convenience store, to buy Italian ices.  Back at the garage, we scraped away at their impenetrable skins with small wooden paddles, carefully working the edges until we could flip the ice entirely and get to the dense stew of sugar and food coloring which settled on the cup’s bottom.  Having served our time, we were granted a reprieve and were permitted to watch television until dinner.  Usually we chose ABC’s Wide World of Sports or repeats of Secret Agent and Mission Impossible.

A red patterned formica-topped table sat in the center of my grandmother’s cozy kitchen.  An old fashioned, compact refrigerator with rounded corners hummed away in the corner, hiccupping whenever starting or stopping.  Amid much grunting and cursing, my father and uncle had cut a large rectangle out of the south wall of the kitchen and installed shelving on which my grandmother displayed her knickknacks: figurines and ceramic pieces she’d collected over the years.  I especially coveted two china dogs, one brown and one yellow, that were arranged on the bottom shelf where I could easily see them.  Through the shelves you could peer into the next room where my grandmother kept a jungle of plants that were healthy and thriving – in stark contrast to my family’s feeble attempts to sustain houseplants at our home.  Having matured in a farming community, my grandmother had a green thumb and carefully tended to all flora both indoors and out in her yard.

The table was set with china plates etched with a crinkly web of minute cracks and fissures.  My tenuous memory tells me that we always had pot roast and mashed potatoes, but that can’t be true, can it?  For dessert, we had oatmeal cookies, stale from sitting in the tin too long, or jello corrupted with the fruit that my grandmother added as a special treat for us kids.  At my age, I didn’t understand that my grandmother was a diabetic, that there wouldn’t be a lot of sweets in her home, the few that gained entry tending to linger there awhile.

After dinner, my siblings and I would retreat to the living room while the adults packed away leftovers and washed and dried the dishes.  As we watched Petticoat Junction, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Mannix, the adults sat at the kitchen table, my grandmother nursing a small tumbler of ginger ale while the others drank beer from the smoked drinking glasses that my parents had brought back from their Virginia Beach honeymoon.  The living room was sweltering, both summer and winter, and, drenched in sweat, we soon passed out draped across the sofa or sprawled across the carpet.  Eventually we were roused from our sleep and ushered grumpily to our car for the ride home.

My grandmother would display the flag on all patriotic holidays.  During one of our visits, she asked me if I would replace the line on the flagpole that stood in her small front yard.  I readily agreed.  Since I was still pretty young, my mother had reluctantly consented to this, but my grandmother was delighted.  As we stood around the flagpole, I was given my instructions, handed the line, then lifted and placed on the pole.  The two women pushed me by my bottom as high up as they could, but after that I was on my own.  I was a very active, adventurous child who regularly climbed trees and got into all sorts of mischief, so this task didn’t unnerve me at all.  I immediately began shimmying up the pole and was soon on level with the roof of the house.  I looked down to see my anxious mother watching me skeptically, but my grandmother was smiling broadly and cheering me on.  I must admit that as I neared the top I was a bit surprised to discover how tall the flagpole really was.  Nevertheless, I continued to the top.  Once there, the process became a little more challenging because I had to thread the line through a pulley and to do that I had to release my grip on the pole, something I hadn’t considered while still on the ground.  I froze for some moments while the ladies waited perplexed below.  Then I got up my courage, embraced the pole tightly with my thighs and fed the line through the pulley.  That accomplished, I quickly slid down to join my relieved mother and ecstatic grandmother.  After patting me on the back, my grandmother turned to my mother and said, “Did you see, Marion?  He’s just like his grandfather!”  To be compared with my grandfather made my young heart swell.

The weekly visits continued throughout my childhood, but, as we, one by one, reached our teen years, my siblings and I were permitted to remain at home while my parents made their regularly scheduled excursion.  We would do our homework, hang with our friends, walk our dog and savor a TV dinner in the evening hours before going to bed.  My older siblings worked part-time jobs during this period and would often be gone for most of the day.  We did not see as much of my grandmother as before, but she made occasional visits and joined us for many holidays.  As she grew older, my grandmother inevitably became less agile and broke bones in a number of falls.  She stayed at our home for extended periods during each recuperation and, once healed, she would return to her independent life of shopping, visiting with friends, attending church and, most importantly, playing her beloved bingo.  But the years were taking a toll on her.  I remember on one occasion my parents rushing off unexpectedly to care for her when she had a dangerously high fever and was pretty delirious.  After being reprimanded by her stern German doctor for neglecting my grandmother’s health, my father, a fearless amateur physician, stayed up with her the entire night sponge bathing her and forcing her to drink liquids.  She pulled through, but it was becoming increasingly evident that her days of living on her own were numbered.

Andrew Wyeth - Barn Loft - 1956
So many of my memories of that time are connected with my grandmother’s garage where I had spent so many idle hours.  The structure was enormous and packed with the dross accumulated over many years past.  At the rear there was a glider seat that hung suspended on four straps.  Many a summer night, I would lie on that seat gently swaying in the dim yellow glow of a distant house light, half-listening to the crickets chirping and the unintelligible chatter of the adults gathered in the front of the garage, the aroma of beer and cigarette smoke infusing the humid air.  There was a square hatch in the garage’s ceiling that provided access to its attic.  Without a dropdown ladder, the attic remained terra incognita for many years, but bored children will eventually explore every square foot of a property given enough time.  By placing a folding ladder beneath the hatch and balancing on the top step, I could just reach the lip of the hatch and pull myself onto the floor of the attic.  The scariest part of the process was reaching up through the hatch and putting my hand onto the dusty, wooden floor.  Sleepy wasps would gather at the entrance, and more than once I got stung when I placed my hand directly upon one of them.  There was a lot of old things up there: boxes filled with papers and clothing, screens and storm doors and tall wardrobes (or chifferobes, as my mother called them).  I was most intrigued by the decorations I found there, remnants from celebrations long forgotten: welcome home parties, New Year’s celebrations and wedding and baby showers.  On one of my visits up there, I fanned open white paper wedding bells and hung them from the rafters.  I stretched banners from one end of the attic to the other.  Satisfied with the results of my efforts, I dangled from the hatch until my foot made contact with the ladder’s top step, then descended, leaving my indiscretions to be discovered by the next intruder to that space.  Perhaps my most poignant memory of time spent in that garage dates back more than thirty years.  My grandmother could no longer live on her own, so the house my grandfather had built, that old fashioned structure with crystal doorknobs, a freestanding bathtub and a terrifying, labyrinthine basement, was being sold.  We were at the house to pack up what could be saved and dispose of what couldn’t, and I had been working all day, moving furniture and boxes, sorting through years of possessions and cleaning room after room.  While out in the garage to take a break, I recognized that this would be my last visit to this place.  The new owner intended to level the garage, cut down the crab apple and pear trees that had occupied the backyard since before my birth and divide the property in two.  On the new lot, he planned to build a large, modern house that would tower over the neighbors’ homes.  It was getting late.  Sunlight was already creeping along the floor of the garage.  Someone had pulled a large wardrobe to the front of the structure, and, out of idle curiosity, I took a look inside and found two uniforms, one from each of the two world wars, carefully preserved and hanging side-by-side there.  I hoped that someone planned to save these heirlooms from the dumpster, but, being just a kid without influence or a place of my own to store them, I didn’t pursue the matter.  I thought it would be a shame to lose these tangible artifacts of our family history, a history that I had over the years learned piecemeal from my grandmother and mother.  The story, as I understand it, goes like this…

Having suffered some romantic betrayal from a longtime lover, my grandfather determined that he would remain a bachelor and devote his working life to the US Army.  He enlisted with the cavalry and quickly developed a lifelong love of horses.  I recall hearing that he joined Pershing on his fruitless pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico.

Leopoldo Mendez - Pancho Villa - c1944
When America became a combatant in World War I, he was sent to Europe.  I know little of his activities during the war, except that at some point he was mustard gassed and transported to a hospital to convalesce.

Otto Dix - Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor - 1924
At the war’s end, Allied troops occupied Germany’s Rhineland with the local population being required to billet the soldiers.  That is how my grandfather came to be living in my grandmother’s home on the outskirts of Koblenz.  As I have said earlier, my grandmother grew up in a predominantly agrarian community; it consisted of a core village of homes and outbuildings surrounded by fields, privately owned and independently farmed.  Most households kept livestock, a cow, a pig and some chickens at a minimum.  A church, shops and opportunities for employment were to be found in a larger town within walking distance of their small village – a journey demanding enough to be undertaken only once a week.  I would say that my grandmother’s family were solidly middle class.

(My grandmother is third from right.)
As these things happen, a romance blossomed between my grandmother and the American soldier staying in her home, and they determined that they would be married once the occupation was over.  My grandmother told me how her family tried to teach my grandfather the language by pointing at things and supplying their German names: der Tisch, das Stuhl, der Löffel, das Fenster.  I once asked her, “But, Grandma, how could you agree to marry someone who you couldn’t even talk with?”  With a wry smile and a twinkle in her eye, she replied, “Oh, there are other ways to communicate.”

When the Americans ended their occupation, my grandfather was required to return to the States to be decommissioned.  He promised that he would come back to Germany to marry my grandmother.  Her father warned her, “He will not come back”, but my grandmother was sure that he would keep his word.  And he did.  When he returned to Germany, he suggested that they make their life together there in my grandmother’s homeland, but she felt that there was too much resentment and bad feeling after the war for an American ex-soldier to be accepted by the local population.  Instead, they were married and traveled to Holland where they boarded a ship bound for New York.

Initially, they lived in the City, but my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the crowds and the noise and the filth.  So they moved over the county border into Nassau, which in those days was fairly undeveloped with clusters of private dwellings interspersed among stretches of open farmland.  There my grandfather built the home that I knew as a child, the home in which he and my grandmother were to raise their four children.  Customary practices were changing rapidly in those early years of the twentieth century, and some of their babies were delivered by a doctor at their home while others were born in the hospital.  My grandfather was versatile and could perform a multitude of jobs, but I believe he was primarily a roofer.  He joined the Volunteer Fire Department; my grandmother, the Ladies Auxiliary.  They watched their children grow and prosper, each of them attaining a high school diploma, which was the norm for middle class kids at the time.

During the Second World War, they saw their two sons sent to join the fighting, one in Europe and the other in the Pacific.

Miraculously, they both came home, alive and uninjured.  Upon his return, one of my uncles planted hundreds of flowers in my grandparents’ backyard, an undeniably sane response to the experience of war.  Years later, my mother still recalled the sight with awe.  In the postwar years, my grandparents’ children married and settled on Long Island, as the surge in development carried families further and further out on the Island toward the Forks.

And the years slowly drifted by, as is always the case, barely perceptibly, with events to celebrate and in which to take pleasure and others to mourn and regret, though, under deep circumspection, perhaps, we would be prone to observe that most days pass unremarked with little occurring to differentiate one day from that which preceded it or that which will follow.  And so my story inevitably comes full circle to the years after my grandmother’s house had been sold and she came to live permanently with my family.

During this period, my grandmother and I became great friends.  As this entry will attest, I was fascinated with her stories of the past and questioned her greedily on details from her childhood.  When I was in grad school, I would emerge from my morning painting sessions in the basement to join my mother and grandmother for lunch.  I can vividly recall sitting at our kitchen table, my head still full of my morning’s labor, tomatoes from my mother’s garden set on the windowsill to ripen in the sun and my mother and grandmother rehashing happenings from long past, almost madly obsessed with establishing an accurate chronology of those events.  Whenever I planted anything, my grandmother, leaning on the cane that the passage of years had forced upon her, would hobble after me into the yard and watch my efforts.  Once she declared wistfully, “Oh, if only I could get down there with you and put my hands in the soil!”  Though my grandmother rarely touched alcohol, on special occasions I sometimes goaded her into doing shots of Jägermeister with me, and, with cheeks aflame, she would laugh and argue with me while the candles burned down after our evening meal.  I never heard my grandmother say anything critical of anyone.  She honestly liked everyone she met, but, in particular, she was committed to her family.  Ignoring each of our faults and indiscretions, she would only recognize the kernel of decency and excellence that she was certain resided at our cores.  She took particular delight in informing folk (the dentist, barber, podiatrist or the checkout lady at the supermarket) of how many grandchildren and great grandchildren she had.

I drew or painted my grandmother’s portrait a number of times during the 1980’s.  Whenever I asked her to pose for me, she would blush demurely and object, “Nobody wants to see an old lady.”  To which, I invariably replied, “Well, I do.”  And she would reluctantly sit, I believe, quite pleased with the attention.

Gerard Wickham - Franziska Normann-Young - 1980
Of course, once established in her new quarters, my grandmother had to scope out a new location at which to play bingo, and luckily my parents’ church provided a convenient venue.  My father would take her there in the evening once a week.  When he wasn’t available, one of us kids would do the driving.  On one occasion when I was the designated chauffeur, I discussed logistics with her on the drive over.  “I’ll drop you off at the front of the church.  You’ll wait there while I park the car, then I’ll come get you and help you to your place.”  She looked at me defiantly.  “I don’t need any help.  I can do it on my own.”  I pleaded, “Please, Grandma!  If you get hurt, it will be me who gets in trouble.”  She grumbled unhappily.  She was already over 90 then, and there were two flights of stairs to be maneuvered to get down to the large room where the bingo games were held.  Once at the church, I pulled over to the curb and helped my grandmother out of the car.  I looked down at her stout frame supported on her cane.  “Now just wait here.  I’ll be back in a second.”  After tearing through the parking lot to quickly find a space, I raced back to the front of the church to collect my grandmother.  She was gone.  I rushed into the building, sprinted across the lobby and, upon approaching the stairs, found my grandmother, still on the first flight, frantically scurrying downward, two hands on the railing, her cane, hooked over her forearm, trailing behind.  I quickly caught up with her, grabbed the cane away from her and helped her down the stairs and to her seat.  She huffed a little and fought me a bit but had to succumb to this minor indignity.  I left the building feeling completely exasperated, but, at the same time, couldn’t help but admire her undiminished tenacity.

Understanding in her early 90’s that her stay with us was finite, my grandmother began to spend hours in her room sifting through papers and documents, old cards and letters and photographs, organizing them in bundles secured with rubber bands.  During those last years, my nephew lived at the house with her.  She would invite him into her room and show him photographs of members of her extended family overseas until, at the age of two, he could identify each individual on sight, pronouncing his or her name with a perfect German accent.  Apparently, my grandmother was taking stock, tidying up her legacy, in anticipation of a time when she would no longer be available to offer information or provide answers to our questions.  Being of a similar mind, I asked her one day to pose for a photograph in the morning light at my parents’ backdoor.  She disappeared for about a half hour, returning formally dressed, bedecked with a necklace and earrings, her hair carefully arranged.

She died rather suddenly from complications resulting from extremely minor surgery.  I was living in the city at that time and didn’t get a chance to see her in the hospital before she was gone.

Endnote:  I like to visit cemeteries, a habit I probably picked up in my teens during camping trips made annually with my parents and siblings along with my aunt, uncle and their children.  My uncle would suddenly pull over to the side of the road upon sighting a particularly old graveyard, and we would all tumble out of our cars to tramp amongst the graves, studying the headstones, reading the often unusual names and determining the age of the markers.  The practice has stuck with me to this day.  In my own town, I am particularly drawn to a timeworn cemetery located behind a church built in the early 1800’s, its confines girded in a low, flagstone wall.  Frequently, while my wife shops nearby, I’ll visit this cemetery and meander among the markers, each individually unique and commonly quite elaborate.  There are sections of the cemetery that are very old.  Some of the individuals buried there were born around the time of the American Revolution; others must have fought in the Civil War.  I construct stories about the dead.  The husband and wife, whose headstones are surrounded by those of their young children who predeceased them by many years, lost them in a horrible epidemic.  The widow who lived for forty years after her husband’s death remained faithful to his memory while watching the world change dramatically: cars replacing horses, electricity coming into use, a world war consuming a generation of our nation’s youth.  The two teens who died on the same day, their headstones positioned side-by-side, were the tragic victims of an ill-fated, drunken, midnight joyride.  It consoles me to delude myself that I can recreate the narratives of these individuals from a few lines of numbers and letters, that their stories, once as vivid as my own, did not die with them.  But that is purely an emotional response.  Intellectually, I recognize that, for the vast majority of us, the imprint we leave behind will be erased completely within a generation or two after our deaths.  Not a comforting thought, to say the least.  Perhaps that is why I made the effort to record here these impressions of my youth and resurrect my grandparents’ saga in this spare and flawed account.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Entry - 2.7.16

Artists have been making prints for centuries.  Generally, printing is about replication.  For someone living in the twenty first century, the idea of creating multiple identical copies of an image might not seem that miraculous, but the development of printing techniques really resulted from revolutionary changes in how information was shared within world societies.  Books existed before there was a way to print them.  They were painstakingly copied by hand and therefore fairly rare and expensive.  Of course, where the word existed, it was naturally accompanied by the image to illustrate it.  These images were manually-executed, one-of-a-kind originals.  Sometimes the artwork, unfathomably detailed and intricate, transformed a book into a magical object to be venerated within a religious community.

Lindisfarne Gospel - c700
At other times, artwork elevated a utilitarian book, such as a Book of Hours, into something precious and exquisite, only to be afforded by the nobility.

Limbourg Brothers - February from The Book of Hours - 1412 to 16

Limbourg Brothers - December from The Book of Hours - 1412 to 16
Because books were owned by a literate elite, it was not requisite that the artwork contained within them directly illustrate the words on the page; it was more critical that the artwork enhance the value of the book as an object.  The uneducated masses could see sculpture and paintings which explicitly depicted biblical stories and other narratives in their churches and public institutions.

With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436, books were suddenly more available and less costly.  Publishers were able to mass produce books on a much larger scale, and it was only natural that they would desire to include imagery in their work, both to follow the tradition established with handmade books and, now that books could end up in the hands of less educated owners, to illustrate or provide concrete representations of the people, places and activities described on the page.

Unknown - Illustration for Morte d'Arthur - 1498

Michael Wolgemut - The Dance of Death - 1493

Elizabethan - Macbeth, Banquo and Three Witches - 17th Century
Though the development of the woodcut occurred in Europe at around 1400, it was the invention of the printing press that encouraged artists to develop the printing technique into a sophisticated art form.  Because moveable type could be fitted around a block easily, woodcuts were particularly suitable for mass printing and remained the primary technique for illustration until the late sixteenth century.  During this period, artists were also creating editions of fine art prints not to serve as illustrations but to be marketed as “stand alone” works of art.

Albrecht Durer - Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -  1498

Albrecht Durer - Rhinoceros - 1515
It is interesting that in order to achieve a full range of tones in these prints, artists resorted to using the same techniques they used in drawing – crosshatching being most consistently employed.  Though the results were often magnificent, mimicking linear techniques on a woodblock was unnatural, extremely difficult and really did not maximize the full potential of the medium.

Woodblock printing techniques were first used in ancient Egypt and China, where woodcuts were employed in dyeing patterned fabrics.  Long before Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and moveable type, the Chinese were printing books using woodcuts.  But it was the Japanese who really optimized the potential of this printing technique, evidenced by the large number of quality fine art prints created during their Edo period from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  The Japanese approached woodblock printing in a more organic fashion than the Europeans of the 15th century, avoiding the temptation to imitate linear techniques and suggest subtle modeling using the medium.  Japanese prints are essentially graphic works with expressive, flowing lines encompassing broad expanses of vibrant color and intricate patterning.  While the Europeans used oil-based inks for printing, the Japanese adopted water soluble pigments which permitted them to experiment with transparency and incorporate delicate gradations of tone and hue within solid areas of color.  Some artists dusted their prints with a metallic powder called mica to create a shimmering effect when appropriate – in a snow scene, for instance.

Kitagawa Utamaro - Ase o fuku onna - 1798

Katsushika Hokusai - Evening Moon at Ryogoku Bridge - 1831/32

Utagawa Kunisada - Tale of Genji - mid 1800s

Utagawa Hiroshige - Kanbara - 1832
When European artists first became aware of Japanese prints in the mid-19th century, they were both startled and enchanted.  The Impressionists quickly incorporated in their work elements from the prints like the use of unusual vantage points or the quirky, seemingly arbitrary, cropping of images.  But it was really the next generation or two of artists that turned to the woodcut as a vital means of expression, using not only Japanese prints as their models but also the art of many peripheralized cultures such as those of Africa or the South Sea islands.  These artists were seeking a more brutal and elemental means of expression – one devoid of sophistication and artistic convention.  Besides turning to the artwork of other cultures, they were inspired by the early woodcuts of Northern Europe and recent developments in the artistic vocabulary of contemporary artists.  Their prints had to reflect the medium from which they were created, expressing the difficulty of cutting into a hardwood block with knives and gauges, exposing the individual marks of the artist, revealing the knots and grain which defined their medium.  Their prints are scarred and irregularly shaped, determined by the cheap scraps of wood affordable to them.  Middle tones and modeling have been eliminated.  Virtuosity and nuance have been sacrificed to arrive at a more honest, basic means of communication.

Paul Gauguin - Change of Residence - 1899

Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait - 1923

Ernst Barlach - The Cathedrals - 1920

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Head of Ludwig Schames - 1918

Erich Heckel - Portrait of a Man - 1918
It was exposure to the prints of these modern artists 35 years ago that first sparked my interest in woodcuts.  During that period, I’ve peripatetically explored this printing technique, at times devoting myself solely to printing and at other times not producing a single print for years.  I have struggled, maybe not too successfully, to avoid the slavish imitation of the masters who have come before me, keeping my approach to the block personal and organic.  My interest primarily in figurative compositions and portraiture is reflected in my prints.  Early on, exaggeration and distortion were devices I commonly employed in my prints, not surprising since at that time I was still resisting the inclination to work naturalistically in other mediums, slowly discarding expressionist conventions and developing my own personal language.  Today I find that, regardless of my intentions, the block imposes its own sensibility on my work; the more receptive I am to where the block is leading me, the more successful will be the resulting print.

Gerard Wickham - I Was Told to Wear a Tie - 1987

Gerard Wickham - Woodcutter and Model - c1990

Gerard Wickham - Tyler - 1998

Gerard Wickham - Dawn - 1998

Gerard Wickham - Terre Anne - 1999

Gerard Wickham - Organ Hill - 2001

Over the years, I’ve developed my own techniques for making woodcuts.  I’ve received no formal training in the technique, so everything I’ve learned has come from written materials and the process of trial and error.  A master printer may find fault with many of my procedures.  That’s fine.  My goal has never been to develop the quintessential printing technique; instead, I aim to arrive at procedures that fit my personality and attain the specific results that I desire.

Recently, I made a woodcut of my son and his girlfriend, recording in photographs significant stages in the process.  I thought it would be interesting to provide here a brief, step-by-step summary of my procedures.  I began by purchasing a hardwood plank, in this case poplar, at a local store which carries a variety of lumber.  After cutting from the plank a block of the dimensions I desired, I sanded the printing surface just enough to eradicate any irregularities that might interfere with the printing process.  I drew in pencil on the block a general sketch of my composition and traced my lines with indelible marker.  Keep in mind that your final print will be the mirror image of the drawing that you’re now seeing on the block.  Flipping an image can dramatically change its movement and mood, so it’s best to experiment a bit before committing to a composition.

I then shellacked the block to protect the wood and prevent the ink from absorbing into the surface.  Be sure to shellac both sides of the block or warpage will result.  Once dry, the block is ready to be cut.  I use a variety of handheld woodcutting tools that can be purchased at an art supply store or hobby shop.  It’s critical that the tools are sharp or your cuts will be ragged and your tools will slip across the surface of the wood.  I used hand pressure to make my cuts, only occasionally resorting to a rubber mallet when challenged by a stubborn stretch of wood.  The cutting of this block required about half a dozen sessions over a period of a few days.

Here I am in front of the All Nighter enjoying a blazing fire while cutting my block.

This block is ready for a test print.  One thing I like about woodcuts is that the printing process is very elemental and tactile.  No fancy apparatus are required, just a handheld brayer (ink roller) and a baren (tool for rubbing).  For a test print, I use a water soluble ink and a sheet of regular quality drawing paper.  I put a dollop of ink on a pane of glass and roll it with my brayer until the ink is spread evenly over a 4” X 4” square.  Then I begin rolling the ink onto the block, careful not to over ink any section of the woodcut – which could result in the loss of detail.  Depending on the size of the block, you may have to add ink to the pane several times during this process.

Above you can see my block, fully inked and ready for its first test printing.  Printing is quite easy.  Lay a sheet of paper on a flat surface and carefully place your block on it (inked side down).  Apply pressure to the block until the paper has made good contact with the ink and adheres to the surface of the block.  Now you can gently flip the block over and begin methodically rubbing the reverse side of the paper with your baren.  I prefer to use the back of an ordinary tablespoon for this purpose.  When you are satisfied that you’ve covered the entire woodcut, slowly peel the paper from the block and put it aside to dry.  For this print, I cut the block further and made additional test prints twice before becoming satisfied with the results.

Printing the final version is identical in process to executing a test print with two exceptions: you use oil-based ink and good quality 100% rag printing paper.  I like to use a fairly lightweight paper for woodblock printing since it allows me to see during the rubbing phase which areas of the print have made proper contact with the ink on the block.  Also, beforehand, I dampen the paper by briefly submersing it in water and setting it on a flat surface for about a half hour before printing.  It’s a good idea to dab off any puddling that occurs when you remove the paper from the water.  I usually only make a couple of prints from any block, but always have the option of producing more later if there is a demand.  You can see the final version of the print below.

Gerard Wickham - Hailey and Ernst - 2015

All Framed Up
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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Entry - 11.7.15

I was thrilled to learn a few months ago that Scandinavia House would be hosting an exhibition of the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi, one of my favorite painters whose works are rarely seen firsthand in America.  Hammershøi is one of those rare artists whose work you either love or hate, the admirers and despisers citing the same attributes to support their respective opinions.  Hammershøi definitely doesn’t fit any mold, his oeuvre refuses to be defined by any specific time period, his approach, though blatantly unaffected by revolutionary trends within Europe’s artistic community, seems strangely modern today.  If you are unfamiliar with the work of this Danish master, I hope to provide a reasonable introduction here.

Vilhelm Hammershøi was born in Copenhagen in 1864.  His father was a successful merchant, so he grew up in fairly prosperous circumstances, his family able to provide art lessons for him from an early age.  He studied independently with a number of painters including the talented Norwegian, P.S. Kroyer, and also attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts for formal training.

Hammershøi’s life appears to have been delightfully mundane, exhibiting none of the turmoil and drama we normally associate with an artist’s existence.  After completing his studies, he painted a number of successful works featuring his sister, Anna, and was accepted for the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in 1885.  In 1891, he married Ida Ilsted, the sister of a close friend and colleague, and she became his predominant model for the remainder of his life.  His work enjoyed critical acclaim and provided him a reliable income.  Artists and intellectuals visited Hammershøi, often finding him shy and retiring.  He remained rooted in his native Copenhagen, living principally in just two locations which he documented thoroughly in his work.  Hammershøi died in 1916 at the age of 51.

 Hammershøi explored relatively few motifs throughout his career.  He painted landscapes, particularly the austere environs on the outskirts of Copenhagen.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - From Refsnaes - 1900

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape from Lejre - 1905

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape from Virum near Fredericksdal, Summer - 1888

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Rainy Summer Landscape from Virum near Fredericksdal - date unavailable
He was also interested in architectural details in urban settings: the façades of buildings, constricted courtyards, unpopulated streets, a glimpse of the sea between structures.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - From the British Museum, Winter -1906

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior of Courtyard, Strandgade -1899

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Strandgade with Christians Kirke in the Background - 1908

Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Royal Palace Church in Copenhagen - 1910

Vilhelm Hammershoi - View of the Old Asiatic Company - 1902
By far, the motif that dominates his mature oeuvre is that of a lone female figure set in an intimate interior space, most commonly with her back turned to the viewer.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - A Woman Reading by a Window - date unavailable

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida in a White Chair - 1900

Early on he used his sister as his model, but, once he married, his wife, Ida, almost exclusively populates his carefully documented interiors.  Hammershøi and his wife lived in two locations throughout their marriage, and the artist repeatedly and painstakingly documented their living quarters: the polished wooden floors, the heavy molding framing each doorway, the cool tentative light that drizzles through the thick windowpanes, the dark, hidden recesses glimpsed down hallways or through partially open doorways, the familiar furniture which appears again and again in his various paintings.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Drawing Room - The Four Copper Prints - 1905

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior in Strandgade - date unavailable

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Two Candles - 1904

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior, Sunlight on the Floor - 1906
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hammershøi was a great admirer of the paintings of Vermeer and Whistler.  There are many striking similarities between his work and theirs: muted tonalities, a focus on carefully arranged compositions and a sensitivity to atmosphere and light.

Johannes Vermeer - The Milkmaid - 1658c

James Whistler - Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 - 1871
Whistler, as a portrait painter, arrived at two essential innovations: he made the perfection of the overall composition his supreme concern and he used brushwork organically, almost matter-of-factly, as determined by his subject matter.  Vermeer presents a vignette, catching an instant in time that is in flux and will never happen again.  Hammershøi brings something new to the equation.  There is a sense that time is standing still, that this same moment could be experienced again in a week or even a year into the future.  Perhaps this strange suspension of time is what gives Hammershøi’s work its surreal quality.  His paintings still seem fresh and contemporary over a century after their creation.

I wonder why these paintings of lone women inhabiting dimly lit interior spaces are so appealing and so evocative.  The woman is usually conservatively attired in a dark, fairly plain dress, her hair pulled back and neatly arranged in a knot at the back of the head and her face turned away from the viewer.  There is nothing opulent about the woman.  A simple comb holds her braid in place.  She wears little or no jewelry.  Her dress is utilitarian.  The space she occupies is equally unexceptional, neat, clean and sparsely furnished.  Very few luxuries intrude on this Spartan lifestyle.  A carefully maintained spinet, perhaps a family heirloom, is featured in several paintings.  Glossy tabletops bear a silver candlestick holder or a few pieces of fine china.  A book perused in quiet contemplation is a rare indulgence.  The world depicted is thoroughly middleclass, an aura of restrained conservatism emanates from these intimate scenes.

I think comparing the work of Hammershøi to that of the Nabis artists, Pierre Bonnard and Eduoard Vuillard, will be revealing.  Both Bonnard and Vuillard came to their artistic maturities at about the same time as Hammershøi and were also best known for depicting intimate scenes of home life.

An initial glance reveals most blatantly that the Nabis were participants in the modernist revolution in art.  These French artists, living at the hub of the European art world, were aware of all the current trends and innovations in modern art: Impressionism, Pointillism and Symbolism.  Technically, they were freed up to use paint however their need dictated, from thin transparent glazes to thick, mortar-like impasto.  They used a heightened palette and did not employ color naturalistically.  Hammershøi applied paint using time-proven, conservative techniques, and his palette is extremely restrained.

 Compositionally, the Nabis present an explosion of activity, people, objects, patterns, reflections and flickering light filling their canvases – at times actually spilling out of the picture plane leaving figures strangely cropped as one might find in an unstaged snapshot.

Pierre Bonnard - Lunch at Le Grand Lamps - 1899

Pierre Bonnard - The Luncheon - 1899
Hammershøi’s scenes are carefully constructed, the figure usually placed nearly centrally, a rigid symmetry prevailing and a sense of balance achieved.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Rest - date unavailable
The light in Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s paintings is warm and golden, essentially Mediterranean.  It bursts into a house, filling rooms with a cheerful glow.  Often the windows are cast open, inviting inside the outdoor light retaining the tones of gardens, trees and lawns.

Eduoard Vuillard - The End of Breakfast with Madame Vuillard - 1895

Pierre Bonnard - Woman with Cat - 1947
A cool northern light illuminates Hammershøi’s scenes, feebly casting a pattern on the floor, filling the panes of a distant window or catching a swarm of dust particles swirling in its rays.  Hammershøi’s windows are always shut.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Dust Motes Dancing in Sunlight - 1900

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Open Doors - 1905

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Sunshine in the Drawing Room III - 1903
The Nabis inhabit a social world.  Friends and family members meander into their paintings to enjoy some conversation, tend to a child’s needs, share a meal, play an instrument or simply read a newspaper.  Tables are generously laid with colorful foods, polished crockery, sparkling glasses and patterned tablecloths.  In the rare instances when an individual is presented alone, he or she is commonly accompanied by a family pet.  There is a sense of the moment in these works… a deceptive feeling that the artist almost arbitrarily caught his subjects in mid-movement… that we have been privileged to catch a brief glimpse of the intimate family life of the artist.  These paintings are filled with noise.

Eduoard Vuillard - Family Lunch - 1899

Eduoard Vuillard - Breakfast at Villerville - 1910

Pierre Bonnard - Convocation - date unavailable

Pierre Bonnard - The Red Checkered Tablecloth - 1910
Hammershøi was a reserved, contemplative man.  Those intellectuals who chose to visit him found him shy and reluctant to converse.  His world was fairly restricted – defined by his economic status and the places in which he lived.  His social outlets were limited to a few close colleagues and family.  The walls in his homes are unpapered and unpatterned, and the furniture is of dark wood, carefully dusted and polished.  There is no sense of spontaneity in his paintings; every object included has been carefully chosen and positioned according to the demands of composition.  Commonly, Hammershøi’s interiors are inhabited by figures, almost exclusively alone and usually female.  These women are sometimes engaged in quiet activity: carrying a platter, sitting at a spinet or reading a book.  Just as commonly, they do nothing at all.  Their world is undisturbed by visitors.  Their days are not filled with demanding chores and physical exertion.  Their homes are not filled with the sound of babies crying, animated conversation, animals mewing and barking, the laughter of children and the clatter of utensils on dishes.  All is still and quiet.  All activity is internal.

Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida Playing the Piano - 1910

Vilhem Hammershoi - Interior with Young Woman from Behind - 1904
And, of course, the most striking thing about these paintings is that the figure is most often turned away from the viewer.  This creates a strange paradox for us.  These images depict intimate scenes of the artist’s home life.  His model is usually his wife or a close relation, and yet she is presented anonymously, almost serving purely as a compositional element.  Depending upon personal predilections, desires and associations, the viewer is permitted to assert the features of his or her own choosing on the model.  The woman becomes universal for us, but is this legitimate?  The question becomes: how is identity established?  For centuries, the answer would have been through the unique facial features of the individual.  Often a portrait artist would have his subject sit for the painting of the head and use a stand-in model appropriately attired to pose for the body.  Hammershøi challenges the accepted notion of what establishes identity – which seems to me a very modern conundrum.  If the face is used to determine identity, then how does one evaluate the individual disfigured by injury or enhanced by cosmetic surgery?  Would the coloration, texture and style of an individual’s hair or the telltale turn of the waist be just as legitimate?  Perhaps, the map of an individual’s DNA would provide the definitive portrait.

Some critics have disparaged Hammershøi’s efforts because his oeuvre appears to be relatively unaffected by developments made by the contemporary avante garde.   After all, Hammershøi’s life spans one of the most volatile and fertile periods in the history of art, beginning in the age of Impressionism and ending with Cubism firmly established as the predominant language of modern art.  Was Hammershøi’s choice not to participate in the fray of the modernist revolution indicative of some deficiency in his character – perhaps a weakness of will or conservative immutability?  I don’t think so.  The greatest challenge facing any artist in making art significant to his audience is finding a language most apt for communicating his or her personal vision.  Hammershøi accomplished this.  During his lifetime, his work was admired and praised by members of the avante garde.  And even today, a century after his death, Hammershøi’s reputation is waxing, his paintings more marketable than ever and exhibitions of his work becoming more common, even in museums and galleries committed to presenting modern and contemporary art.

Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark will be showing at Scandinavia House through February 27th, 2016.  Scandinavia House is located at 58 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016 (between East 37th and 38th Streets).  The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday 12-6 PM and Wednesday 12-7 PM.    

As always I encourage readers to comment here, but, if you would prefer to do so privately, you can email me at

Endnote: I wrote this entry prior to the opening of the show at Scandinavia House.  Yesterday evening after work, I finally hoofed it down to 38th Street to see the exhibit.  Scandinavia House’s exhibition space is relatively modest, so I never expect to see an extensive collection of work there.  The first room was devoted mainly to early portraiture, the second to mature figures studies and interior spaces and the last to landscapes and architectural studies.  And, by the way, if you should visit the exhibition, be sure not to overlook a small side room off the main exhibition space that appears to be more of a coat closet or storage space but actually offers a video presentation on Hammershøi’s life and work.  I was surprised to discover that “process”, something that I look for in any artwork, was very evident in many of the paintings; the few paintings of his that I’ve previously seen “live” were a lot more polished.  I was also pleased to find that I had never seen a lot of work included in the show – even in reproduction.  My only criticism of the exhibition is that none of Hammershøi’s “signature” work was on display.