Woodcuts in a Time of Destitution
04 Dec, 2009 - Daniel Silliman
The way I understand it, it was hard to find artists in Germany after World War II. Some had been killed, some had fled the country, and many, many German artists had connected their work so closely with Nazism that after the war, after the country stood shocked and ashamed of what it had done, the once successful artists were completely rejected. This left Germany desperate for artists. In a time when the country was confused and conflicted, feeling lost and guilty and trying to somehow come to terms with the vicious insanity of its own actions, there was a dearth of artists.
But there were a few. There were some artists who did not just navigate the politically treacherous times of Third Reich Germany, but also managed to speak to the times. One was HAP (Helmut Andreas Paul) Grieshaber. A woodcut artist who opposed militarism and war, he spent years silenced for his pacifism. He lived and worked in England, France, and Greece before the war, but got deported back to Germany because of his pacifism. In Germany, after 1933, he was only able to create art in secret. Grieshaber did manual labor and delivered newspapers to earn a living during WWII, but still continued to work on his woodcuts. It wasn’t until after the war and after Grieshaber was released from an American internment camp, when the country was desolate of artists and in desperate need of art, that anyone was interested in the work he was doing.
His art is medieval, and also modern. His techniques and even the art itself – cutting an inverse image into a block of wood to make a stamp – date to the 1400s, in Europe. Grieshaber, a traditionally trained typesetter and bookmaker, practiced a traditional art. He did not, however, practice an anachronistic art, and he didn’t try to hide in history, to escape or take a vacation from his own time. Instead, as he said, he took “everything from the present day” while practicing an old art form, an ancient craft.
In 1965 and ’66, for example, in one of his more well-known pieces, Grieshaber carved a modern version of the “Dance of Death.” Inspired by the 15th century relief carving in Basel, Switzerland, Grieshaber did his own version. His version is noted for being very faithful to the original, yet also using modern motifs, re-using mythical and Biblical imagery, and making a strong ethical statement. Grieshaber’s “Totentanz von Babel” is 40 panels of people joining in Death’s celebration. The piece is traditional, the craftsmanship old-fashioned, but the point is contemporary, the effect shocking. The dancing people include the Pope and also the artist himself. It indicts us all.
In a later, less political but just as ethically pointed period, Grieshaber did an entire series of couples, men and women in pairs. In some of these, he carved the individuals separately and then, using red and blue paint, joined them together in a print. The entire series seems to be a meditation on basic relationships, on the couple as a picture of peace, and on Jesus Christ’s “new commandment” – “love one another.”
Grieshaber died in 1981, and his 100th birthday is being celebrated this year with micro museum exhibits from Berlin to the Boedensee. The artist, a funny-looking man who described himself as someone who just wanted to live on a mountain alone with his animals, was an answer to an often-posed theoretical question. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once famously asked, “What are poets for in a destitute time?” Theodor Adorno, who left Germany to escape the Nazis, gave a name to the “destitute time.” He called it “after Auschwtiz,” arguing that poetry or any art in an era dominated by ideological murder of millions “is barbaric.” As an Orthodox Rabbi posed the problem, what can we possibly say that is credible in the presence of burning children? Grieshaber’s woodcuts show an answer. His works speak of the way humans relate to nature and to each other. His works speak about recognizing violence, rejecting violence, and hoping and working for an otherworldly peace, the intervention of an angel, a dove, a spirit of love.
What’s especially interesting about Grieshaber, though, is that it’s not the themes of his art alone that demonstrate how to be credible in the face of history’s horror. It’s actually his whole art.
Throughout the 20th century, artists were caught between two answers to the ethical question of how to interact with history. One was traditionalism, quietism. These artists loved one idyllic past or another, with its craftsmanship and contemplation of higher things. They ignored the present and the future, left it alone, because preserving the status quo is the price of the peace you have to have if you’re going to dwell in an imaginary past. The other answer was experimentalism, where the art was always shocking, startling, seeking to shape history and usher in the future. These artists understood themselves to be shock troops, and they served one ideological vision or another.
Both ways of approaching history – attempting to escape into the past and attempting to provoke in the future – helped to make the Holocaust happen. Asked in Germany at the end of the war, asked with a concern about the answer’s complicity with the murder of millions, both answers to the question of art and history seemed severely wrong. While time and distance have allowed both quietists and experimentalists to reclaim their original positions, to defend themselves and disassociate with political programs of murder, Grieshaber didn’t have that luxury – but he had another answer, another way. Grieshaber chose a third way.
His art critiques as it contemplates higher things; it creates a space of quiet, but then uses the quietness to ask crucial questions.
Grieshaber’s art looks back to consider the elemental problems in how we relate to each other, and it looks forward to a hope that surpasses the political. There are others, too, who have done this, who have found this third way. In Germany, Erich Kästner’s realism for children, with stories like Emil and the Detectives, is similarly centered in the historical present, appearing regressive to some while actually being progressive in a conservative way. In America, the painter Andrew Wyeth and the poet Wendell Berry are both examples of this third way, rejecting pastoral and utopian temptations, creating art that responds and deals with the destitution of the times. But, more than anyone, Grieshaber seems to have really answered this problem with his art. It’s unfortunate he’s so unknown, especially outside of Germany. With his pacifism and his care for his craft, his ethical consciousness and his skill and obvious devotion to the materials with which he works, Grieshaber’s woodcuts are an example of art showing us how to be human.
About the author
Daniel Silliman is an American writer now living and working in Southern Germany. He has worked as a gardener, gas station attendant, tree cutter, Wal-mart shelf stocker, college teacher and a crime reporter for a daily paper. He is married to a minister and thinking about getting a cat. More of his writing can be read at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com.