If you're like me, there are certain notions you carry with you when you hear the words "woodblock prints," sometimes it just seems like a quaint antique found in a Vermont cabin.
Or maybe you think of something fantastical or religious done in a harshly monochromatic fashion of European in origin. The Gustave Baumann exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art erodes these notions with a focus on the intense labor involved in the artistic process.
The show was assembled by Marty Krause, curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the IMA. He first encountered the work of Baumann while organizing a show in 1981 to celebrate the artist's centennial. Krause began a long friendhship with Baumann's daughter Ann, who gifted nearly 150 pieces to the IMA collection in 2008.
Planning for the exhibit began in 2011 when Krause believed there were enough Baumann pieces to do the artist justice in a large career retrospective. It's enough to get a feel for the man's woodblock art — and there is plenty of it on display — but the exhibit goes the extra route and gives the patron a view of the man himself.
Baumann's wry sense of humor is put on display through objects, including self-portraits as a child's doll and a marionette. Equally telling is a quote that followed a large botched project: after messing up several blocks, Baumann quipped that he was doing his part to support the lumber industry. A photo shows Baumann organizing his prints in a home safe, pipe in mouth, and a later print is missing a corner to stray ash.
A lot of love has been poured into the exhibit, and it came at a good time and location. A large portion focuses on Baumann's depictions of Brown County, Ind. where he lived for several years as a working artist. When the leaves are beginning their descent to the ground, it's very calming to see beautiful art made in and of our state by a master craftsman. It was in Brown County that Baumann matured as an artist.
"Baumann came to Brown County in 1910 on the advice of his fellow-members in the Palette and Chisel Club," Krause explains. "Baumann's intended vacation stretched to six years, because he found the surroundings much more conducive to his work than the bustle of Michigan Avenue in Chicago where he maintained his commercial art studio". It was in Brown County that Baumann's art matured to what Krause described as "five or six colored painterly landscapes ... rare for a printmaker."
The attention to detail continues the IMA's streak of creating immersive environments that do justice to the work on display. The layout of the exhibit itself is attractive and simple. The rooms have been painted one of the predominant colors of each period of Baumann's career. Each piece is carefully annotated, and one thing I especially appreciated was the inclusion of contemporary art and its influence on his work.
There are many unexpected flourishes and detours. This includes a short section on Baumann's secret flirtation with postwar abstraction and political commentary. Interspersed throughout the rooms are photographs, unfinished projects, and an entire room at the end devoted to the elaborate marionettes Baumann fashioned toward the end of his career. One room to a rare complete folio depicting the culture and terrain of New Mexico. And videos explore the artist's influences, process, and even a section where children could create their own printmaker's symbol.
A room midway through is the temporary working studio to an artist named Leslie Dolin, who teaches printmaking and works through the process as guests watch.
"Work" is a recurring descriptor. Baumann described his creative environment as a space for work instead of a studio and his laborer's qualities are made very apparent throughout the space. "Baumann inherited a feel for craftsmanship from his cabinet-maker father," says Krause. Practical quality was apparent in the way Baumann would cater his art to the individual, never charging more than $100 for a print during his lifetime.
"I hope that the visitor gains an appreciation for the exquisite craftsmanship in each of Baumann's woodcuts and then ignores it while enjoying the glorious images that he created," says Krause.
Gustave Baumann, German Craftsman — American Artist
When: Through Feb. 14
Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road
Tickets: Members free, $18 admission