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Friday, December 15, 2017

Christoffel van Sichem II

The Crucifixion of Jesus, ca. 1657, Christoffel van Sichem II
When someone speaks of an "artist," the first image to come to mind is usually that of a painter, perhaps sitting or standing at an easel. That's a natural reaction for those of us who paint, but it also seems to be the same for most other people as well. Moreover, as I write about art, I'm as guilty as anyone of thinking first and foremost of painters. I suppose that's because painting is what I know best. Yet if one were to break down all the other kinds of artists by media, technique, and content (the most common distinctions) the number of different "adjective" artists (for lack of a better term) would soar into the hundreds. As I was sorting through various artists today I came upon the Dutch "Golden Age" artist Christoffel van Sichem II (or younger). He was not a painter. Actually, he might be touted as being much more skilled than that. He was a woodcut artist.
Biblical scene, ca. 1664, Christoffel van Sichem II. I'm not sure whose Bible or which scene, but that's what the source says.
Young Man with a Turban,
Christoffel van Sichem II
If you want to discuss antique art forms, the woodblock print would be a prime candidate. Even in van Sichem's time, fine art printing had been largely embraced the intaglio printing method of etching grooves into a metal plate, which held the ink until placed in a high-pressure printing press, which transferred it to a damp paper. Since we're talking about the Dutch "Golden Age," we're referring to the 17th-Century. Woodblock printing, it might be said, is exactly the opposite of intaglio in that the grooves gouged by the block carver (not necessarily the artist, by the way) come out white when printed, while the smooth upper surface relief printed the dark lines or masses. Also, relief printing does not require a printing press. An old wooden spoon will do just fine. The inked block is placed face up; the (dry) paper over it face down; and the back of the paper is then rubbed with any smooth tool. The so-called "Biblical scene" (above), does not appear to be one of Sichem's best works, but it does showcase the carving technique quite well. Compare it to van Sichem's The Crucifixion of Jesus (top), or his somewhat crudely drawn Adam and Eve (below). Human anatomy was not van Sichem's strong suit.

Adam and Eve, Christoffel Van Sichem (the younger).
One of the problems in discussing the work of an individual woodblock artist is the fact that it's difficult to know whether the artist was merely the designer or whether he actually cut his designed into the block himself. Many turned that tedious, not to mention time-consuming, phase over to a skilled tradesman to transfer and cut the image. My guess is that only the most successful woodcut artists could afford to do the latter, and that virtually all such artist, at least in the early years of their careers, probably cut their own blocks. I should note that Albrecht Durer, probably the best of the best in this field, definitely cut all his own blocks. No one else was skilled enough to satisfy him.

Last Supper, Christoffel van Sichem II. The intricate detail
a skilled carver could attain is little short of incredible.
As for Christoffel van Sichem II, it would appear that his religious scenes were probably carved by his own hand while his secular images seem not as skilled. He was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1581. As the name would indicate, he learned his trade from his father, Christoffel van Sichem (the elder). Christoffel van Sichem II also made woodcuts based upon portraits by leading artists such as Abraham Bloemaert, Hendrick Goltzius, and Maarten van Heemskerck, among others. He made these for various publications, then later bundled and published them himself in Der Zielen Lust-Hof (The Souls of the Lust Court).

Merry Company in a Bedroom, Christoffel van Sichem II.
I'm not quite sure what the title here suggests, but inasmuch
as all the revelers are still wearing all their clothes...
It's definitely not a "biblical scene" in any case.
In examining woodblock prints, at first glance it may seem hard to determine just how intricate the carving might be. We are accustomed to art being found in every conceivable size. However, woodblocks are not to be found in every conceivable size. In fact seldom are the much larger than a page from an average-size book. That's because such carving demands a very fine-grained, yet relatively hard type of wood, usually boxwood, or fruitwoods such as cherry or pear. These are seldom large trees, which therefore limits the size of the blank block.

St. Paul, Christoffel van Sichem II

Despite such limitations as to size, woodcuts have long had the distinct advantage over intaglio or traditional litho-printing (from stones) in that they are quite compatible with movable-type, which is also a form of relief print-ing. Thus when words and pictures are desired on the same page, woodcuts are especially convenient. For that rea-son, woodcuts were used in printing books and newspapers until the latter part of the 19th-Century.
St. Peter, Christoffel van Sichem II

Dulcimer Player,
Christoffel van Sichem II


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