The Bridge to Linocut
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
This weird practice of slicing up a block of linoleum to make art had to start somewhere, right? I decided to do a little digging and learn a bit about the people who first came up with this practice.
While the origins of this art form are a bit spotty, the group most often credited with inventing or at least popularizing linocut was known as Die Brucke. They were a German expressionist collective founded in 1905 in Dresden. The founding members were Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. They were later joined by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. They had a fairly short run, lasting only until 1913, but they had a lasting impact on 20th century art, as commemorated by the naming of Berlin's Brucke Museum.
The founders met as architecture students but also had a deep interest in art and art history. Though they appreciated the art of the past, they wanted to look forward in their approach to creating. They formed Die Brucke ("The Bridge" in English) with the aim of linking the past to the future. Though they were not fans of complete abstraction, they wanted to move away from the academic realism that dominated at that time. Instead, they expressed their ideas through somewhat crude yet evocative freehand drawings and paintings, often with vibrant colors. Their themes tended to reject bourgeois social norms of the day. They even tried to distance themselves from their wealthy backgrounds by working out of a repurposed butcher shop in a working class neighborhood.
While pushing art forward, they also kept a foot planted in tradition, reviving the older practice of woodcut printmaking. That led to the use of linoleum as an inexpensive and easier to work with substitute for wood. Linoleum had been used as a floor covering since the 1860s, but Die Brucke found it could be used as an art medium. I'm sure art scholars scoffed at them for using what some might consider a "cheap imitation" of woodcut (of course, their harshest criticisms came years later from the Nazi party, so there's a badge of honor), but they didn't care what the gatekeepers thought. They pressed on, valuing artistic expression over doing things the "right way."
This is where I found a connection to Die Brucke. Like myself, they had no education or formal training in the visual arts. They were architecture students who were drawn to art, perhaps as a reprieve from architecture's precision. Without anyone telling them how it should be done, they were free to do their own thing, and along the way, they introduced a new printmaking method. What I love about linocut is its accessibility. Does it really matter that it's cheaper than woodcut? Linocut is something any of us, including children, can learn with a basic starter kit and someone to show you the technique.
I'm thankful Die Brucke didn't shy away from art due to their lack of education. They appreciated the work of those who came before them, but they built a bridge toward the future that's benefited countless others, myself included. It's pretty cool to think that every time I teach a linocut workshop, I'm helping extend that bridge a little bit further.