The earliest print technique, woodcut first appeared in China in the ninth century. Arriving in Europe around 1400, it was originally used for stamping designs onto fabrics, textiles, or playing cards. By the 16th century it had achieved the status of an important art form in the work of Albrecht Dürer and other Northern European artists.
During the first decade of the twentieth century German Expressionists sought to recover a German tradition and to register a thread of continuity with their late Gothic and Renaissance artistic heritage – taking inspiration from late Gothic artists like Durer, Baldung, Cranach, Altdorfer and Grunewald. It was in part a reaction against Impressionism’s emphasis on atmospherics and surface appearances, and against the rigidity of academic painting, stressing instead the emotional state of the artist, subject and also viewer. In addition to the Germanic tradition they were also inspired by Van Gogh, Munch, Gauguin, Cezanne and African and Oceanic art.
The use of the term Expressionism seems to date from around 1911, although the De Brucke movement had been established in 1905 and was holding exhibitions till 1913. Another movement: der Blaue Reiter was formed in 1911 as a loose collection of artists interested in abstraction. Other groups included the Berlin and Munich Secessions, the Red Group, the November Group and the New Artist’s Association. Among the publications were Der Sturm and Die Aktion. Many of these groups and publications had socialist of communist ideals.
They adopted woodcut as a primary artistic vehicle. Their starkly simplified woodcuts capitalized on the medium’s potential for bold, flat patterns and rough hewn effects. At the same time the flexibility of woodcut as a medium encouraged individual approaches and novel techniques from the Brücke’s vigorous cutting to the Blaue Reiter’s abstracted forms. They exploited the medium’s capacity to convey and disseminate innovative ideas, depicting wide ranging themes in a diversity of formats, catering to different audiences.
A change occurred with World War I. The horror of the war and the chaotic years of the Weimar Republic (1919-33) led to introduction of a sharply satirical tone in the work of many of the artists. Many of the artists went on to join new movements like Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit and continued to work until well after World War II.
Shane Weller ‘German Expressionist Woodcuts’ Dover Publications New York, 1994
MOMA Expressionist exhibition website
See also Wikipedia article on Expressionism