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October 2004 How To Buy Art / Turner Prize 2004 / Kernoff Woodcuts / Annie Robinson   VOLUME 2 ISSUE 18  
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Harry Kernoff's Woodcuts

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Harry Kernoff's Woodcuts
by Johanna Roethe

Harry Kernoff (1900-74), the Irish artist of London/Russian extraction, is primarily remembered for his sympathetic interest in Dublin and its people. He depicted street and pub scenes, as well as Dublin landmarks with sympathy and understanding. This is particularly evident in his woodcuts. His print of Davy Byrne’s pub is a document of his friendship with the original owner and shows the interior complete with his portrait of Davy and a self-referential note pinned to the wall, advertising his own work. It is the handling of the woodcut-technique that elevates this print above an anecdotal document of Dublin during the first half of the twentieth century. With delicate lines cut out of the block of wood he creates space and atmosphere. In his woodcut of “The Forty-Foot Bathing Place in Sandycove” he uses the technique and the effects of the woodcut for an expressive reproduction of the cliffs.

The woodcut is the oldest printing technique and involves cutting a relief out of a block of wood. This block works as a negative – the untouched areas stand out and will be coloured black while the cut-out gaps in the block will appear as white areas on paper. As the printing process reverses the image, the preparatory drawing has to be a reverse image of the envisaged final picture. But the vital difficulty is to cut away the right amount of wood so as to get a delicate enough drawing in the final print and not to break the thin raised lines.

The woodcut technique dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century when the production of paper was introduced in Europe and was primarily used for simple illustrations and depictions of religious subject matter for private devotion.

A decisive change occurred with Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). The German artist worked in the time when late Gothic and early Renaissance merged. The period around 1500 was artistically exciting in the history of art and Dürer tried to convey the tension between old and new. He was an extremely versatile artist who raised printing techniques like copper etching and woodcut to a new standard, in technique, subject matter, format and intellectual possibilities. He was the first great artist to create woodcuts and about 350 of his woodcut prints have survived. The subject-matter of the majority of these is religious – such as his “Great Passion” and “Apocalypse” sequences - but he also produced a small number of portraits, prints of the coats of arms of his patrons and secular scenes. He also included small landscape views and everyday details in his religious prints and paintings.

While Kernoff’s choice of subject matter was naturally a different one, he likewise showed a concern to use the woodcut technique in all its possibilities. In prints like “Interior of Davy Byrne’s pub” his handling of the cut out lines is being based in composition and drawing. More than painting, a woodcut requires forward planning and composition and a feel for the material – as only the finished print will show the effect the medium wood has on the cut-out drawing. Both Dürer and Kernoff worked in the linear woodcut technique where the picture is composed from lines cut out of the wood. For different effects, Kernoff would turn to a technique which works through the contrast of white and black areas. “The Forty-Foot Bathing Place in Sandycove” is an example of a freer handling of the woodcut technique where the picture is not built from lines but larger areas of black. The ‘jarred’ surface of the wood block is also perfectly suited to represent the rough cliffs. This technique is obviously influenced by German Expressionists, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and Erich Heckel, who wanted to return to the ‘primitive’ basis of art by seeking inspiration in non-European art and medieval woodcuts. Because of their strong concern with static outlines and drawing, the woodcut became one of their preferred techniques.
In his depictions of Dublin, Kernoff continues these two techniques from the history of the woodcut– the detailed, realistic line drawing of Dürer and the expressive simplification of artists like Kirchner.



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