Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna

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'Rape of a Sabine Woman', 1584

Collection Georg Baselitz, Photo Albertina, Vienna

'St Philip' c1544-47

Albertina, Vienna. Photo Albertina, Vienna

'St George and the Dragon', c1508-10

Collection Georg Baselitz: Photo Albertina, Vienna

'Hercules Killing Cacus', 1588

Collection Georg Baselitz. Photo Albertina, Vienna

'Bacchus', c1589-90

Collection Georg Baselitz. Photo Albertina, Vienna

'The Miraculous Draught of Fishes', c1523-27

Albertina, Vienna. Photo Albertina, Vienna

This is the sort of exhibition at which the Royal Academy excels – taking a topic of specialist, art-historical interest and making it exciting and accessible. Chiaroscuro (the word literally means ‘light-dark’ in Italian) was a woodcut technique that revolutionized printmaking from around 1500, using layers of different coloured inks to give a sense of graduated depth, of volume and solidity. Think of it as the 3D cinema of its day: a sort of newfangled special effect for added visual impact that soon became all the rage.

Indeed, right from the start there seems to have been an affinity between chiaroscuro and the spectacular or violent – from the earliest, three-tone masterpiece, Hans Burgkmair the Elder’s gruesomely gothic ‘Lovers Surprised by Death’, through Hans Baldung Grien’s demonically cavorting witches, to Hendrick Goltzius’s imaginings of ancient classical gods who, for sheer macho resplendency, rival anything in the Marvel comics pantheon.

Inevitably, there’s a fair amount of technical information for you to absorb along the way, but it never seems arduous. The RA does a great job of presenting different impressions of the same image, showing the effect of differing colour-schemes or numbers of layers, as it traces a history that leads away from chiaroscuro’s German origins towards Italy. The implicit argument is that it was this later, more loose and expressive style, that represents the apogee of the technique. It’s ironic to note, given this pro-Italian bias, that half the works in the show come from the collection of Georg Baselitz, one of the most famous, most loose and expressive, German artists working today.

Gabriel Coxhead

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This exhibition sheds light on an obscure and painstaking printmaking technique which originated around 1500 in Germany. What sets it apart is the use of at least one ‘tone block,’ which adds colour as well as line, as well as creating more depth with the interplay of light and dark.

The problem with an exhibition of prints can be that the tone is too similar, making it hard to appreciate the artists’ skill to produce such detailed work. At least here there are colours in evidence other than just black and white, although they are predominantly muted greys and browns (extending to the Farrow and Ball paint on the walls). The tone block makes some of the prints look almost like paintings. There’s also a welcome blast of colour in the informative video illustrating the process, as the modern printmakers have chosen a palette of lurid pinks to illustrate the method.

The pioneers of the technique in Germany were Lucas Cranach and Hans Burgkmair. The most famous printmaker in Germany at that time may have been Albrecht Dürer, but he didn’t adopt the technique. Later prints of his work, made after he had died, did introduce a tone block (including his famous rhino print on display here). From Germany, the technique spread to Italy and the Netherlands. Ugo da Carpi was the early adopter in Italy; many of his prints look very painterly in the way they use light and tone.

Domenico Beccafumi created an amazing Sacrifice of Isaac on three pieces reading like a comic strip. Other highlights include Andrea Andreani’s huge Lamentation of Christ. As you’d expect with 16th century Italy, there’s the usual mix of Biblical and classical themes, some of which are now obscure to the modern eye.

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