Gustave Baumann at CMA: Monumental Trees, and the Reckless Disregard of Time
It’s not just anyone who can donate of a body of work to the Cleveland Museum of Art and have it accepted, much less exhibited in a one-person career-spanning retrospective. But Ann Baumann’s 2005 gift of works by her father Gustave Baumann made the cut. Indeed, the museum followed the artist’s career since the early 20th century, lucky for us.
Gustave Baumann: Colorful Cuts is on view December 20, 2020 through June 27, 2021. Baumann was an American artist who focused on woodcut print making, and made a living at it. He was born in Germany in 1881, studied in Chicago, and lived briefly in Brown County, Indiana before moving to the Southwest, living mostly in Santa Fe. He became a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. He made prints into the 1960s, passing away in 1971.
Organized by retired curator of prints and drawings Jane Glaubinger, the show gets at one of the paradoxes of color woodcut print making. Didactics quote Baumann as “aiming to offer ‘good pictures at low cost,” which of course would be a significant appeal in the making of prints. Then comes the observation that the artist “ironically focused on a technique that ‘required a reckless disregard of time.’”
Since Baumann is quoted as wanting to make “good pictures at low cost,” it’s worth noting that collectors can find original examples of many of the editioned prints on view by looking at auction houses. Their availability is a reflection of Baumann’s production: he made a lot of prints. A quick search indicates that you can expect to pay somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000.
It is a beautiful exhibit, and as the title implies, it’s rich in color. Not just spots of color within the lines of a black “key,” but images entirely defined by color blocks, some carefully overlapping to make additional shades. Baumann made mostly landscapes, and within the pursuit of woodcut print, very realistic ones. The separation of the whole image into individual, single-color wood blocks, and subsequently the registration of the individual impressions are reasons Baumann would have had to recklessly disregard time. He practiced all the associated skills—the drawing of the scenes, the carving of the blocks, the sharpening of chisels, the mixing of ink, and the printing—on his own, without assistance.
The installation of Baumann’s print Summer Clouds (with the blocks and in-progress prints that comprise the whole) illustrates the artist’s process. It begins with the impression of the black “key” block. Next to it we find each subsequent block and its impression by itself, plus the resulting print at that stage. The color printed by each block defines the negative space left for the next—except where he has intentionally over-printed to create new colors or shadows. The impressions accumulate in layers as each block is added, and in the end, we see the whole image. Summer Clouds, printed in 1926, won a prize at the Seventh Annual Printmakers Exhibition in Los Angeles that year. It is the only example the museum has of the print in-progress, at each stage, with the accompanying blocks.
Indeed, the curator’s inclusion of process enriches the whole show.
Baumann did print with a press, rather than using a barren or a wooden spoon to apply pressure by hand, as some printmakers we know do. So he certainly saved some time that way.
The show spans the artist’s long career, in time, subject matter and technique, from the early 1900s to his final editioned print, a rare abstraction titled Hidden Meaning, the artist’s final editioned print, made in 1962.
There are selections from his early series “In The Hills o’ Brown—a reference to Brown County, Indiana, where Baumann spent some time–including The Print Shop, with men at work using a press that must be very much like the one Baumann used. This and a few others from the Brown County series might remind Northeast Ohio print afficionados of works made by the late Oberlin College professor Paul Arnold.
But the show is overwhelmingly about landscapes, especially in the Southwest. He captures trees and the light that falls on them with brilliant skill. His trees are monumental, standing tall against the sky, rising like answers to the nearby hills and mountains. There are aspens, pines, and sequoias. Also striking are the nuanced folds in the orange, ochre, and mustard-colored rocks of the Grand Canyon, with shadows of rock towers cast across them. The flora sometimes approach still-life, as in Tares, a close-up view of flowers gone to seed. It is exceptionally delicate carving and registration. And aside from the landscapes, there are a few still-life close-ups on bouquets of flowers.
Baumann’s work does not emphasize the cut itself—the path of the knife, the movement, the width and intensity of carved lines—as woodcut artists working in monochrome black often do. Neither does it take much influence from the grain of the wood. In his work, the emphasis is on the image. His fields of color are free of knife marks, of any extraneous visual noise.
It is fascinating that amongst all those landscapes the show includes two of his very few examples of abstraction. In a way, those two prints are important details of his 20th century life. Abstraction flourished while he was making all these landscapes, and these show that he not only was aware, but had some measure if interest in the possibilities of that style. Nonetheless, he remained focused on the craft of making scenes.
And speaking of the craft of making scenes, they are beautiful in their palate, in the way they portray the majesty of the West. One thing to take away from this exhibit is that it tells the story of an artist’s life—an artist who made a living at his work. He did so not via shocking, brash ideas, or with occasional big sales, or by grants, or by living residency to residency, but with steady work and attention to craft, spanning years. He made things that people would want to have in their homes. It’s a story a lot of working artists can relate to.