“Originality, Simplicity, Freedom of Expression, and above all Sincerity, with a clean cut block, are characteristics of a good wood block print.”
These are the words of Blanche Lazzell, a champion woodblock print maker and probably the best-known artist in the exhibit, “The 1930s in Prints: A Gift to Kansas City from The Woodcut Society.”
Opening Nov. 23 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the show of 33 seldom-seen prints, all dating from the 1930s, offers not just a chance to survey them, but to familiarize oneself with some lesser-known artists who appreciated and utilized the ancient technique of woodcut.
Alfred Fowler, a Kansas City collector who was friends with both artists and curators, founded the Woodcut Society in 1932. Fowler’s enthusiasm for the prints was likely sparked by his earlier interest in bookplates. Katelyn Crawford, the Nelson’s assistant curator of American Art and the exhibition’s organizer, notes, “It is astounding to think of this organization in Kansas City in the 1930s amassing such a wide-ranging collection of woodcuts by an international body of artists.”
More than 200 woodcuts, wood engravings and linocuts were donated to the Nelson-Atkins between 1935 and 1939. In the midst of the Great Depression, an affordable medium such as relief printmaking was certainly attractive.
The Woodcut Society promoted the medium in two ways. Twice a year, it commissioned editions of 200 prints, and members of the society would receive a print. The Society also organized traveling shows. Around 100 prints traveled annually in these exhibitions, which were held all over the country. Crawford’s exhibit will highlight which works were commissioned between 1932 and 1937 and which works were included in the traveling shows.
The exhibit showcases the stylistic diversity of these woodcuts, from a dynamic landscape by Birger Sandzen, to Treva Wheete’s thoughtful portrait of a Native American, to the simplified silhouette of a lineman captured by Jessie Jo Eckford.
Crawford finds these contrasts intriguing. “Dynamic in their bold graphics, bright colors, and dense hatching, these relief prints captivated viewers while commenting on pressing social and cultural issues of the decade.” One can see the threads connecting the medium of woodcuts with a variety of artistic movements, societal challenges and cultural history of the times.
Crawford, originally from Des Moines, joined the Nelson in July 2014 and is happy to be back in the Midwest. She fondly remembers her first trip to the museum, in 10th grade, and being “enamored of the European art, especially the Monet.” But her subsequent fascination with American history and its material culture led Crawford to concentrate on American art history. She completed her undergraduate work at Columbia University, worked briefly at the New York Historical Society, and was also a fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is currently working on her doctorate from the University of Virginia; her thesis topic focuses on the travel of 18th-century portrait painters, particularly in the Caribbean.
While Crawford was involved with the recent “Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” and the ongoing “American Watercolor” exhibitions, the Woodcut Society gift has provided her with a unique opportunity to acquaint herself with Kansas City and its history of collecting.