In A Modern Rendering – The Color Woodcuts of Gustave Baumann: A Catalogue Raisonné
Published by Rizzoli
First impressions of In a Modern Rendering: The Color Woodcuts of Gustave Baumann are striking. The immediate concern is just not to drop the thing for fear of bodily injury—it is massive, with the artist a deserving beneficiary of an epic Rizzoli treatment. From its profile, you might expect to draw a giant tome from an old-school box sleeve. It turns out to be a clever design conceit, with the golden spine slightly inset and dressed in a fabric distinct from the rest of its jacketless, thick brown cover. These colors complement well the earthy visual warmth Baumann strove for in his prints. The cover image (one of the artist’s legendary views of the Grand Canyon) is also slightly recessed into a window, mimicking the sensitive matting and simple framing Baumann’s lauded prints invariably receive today. This meticulous design sense permeates the book’s pages, appropriate for a man who described himself as “a craftsman by choice, an artist by accident.” While the title is oddly oblique, it is an undeniably beautiful book, sure to become the definitive reference for Baumann’s groundbreaking contributions to the printmaking idiom.
I am a craftsman by choice, and an artist by accident. —G. Baumann
For all that, catalogues raisonnés like this can pose problems for the casual reader. Such texts tend to favor information over images, at times thwarting the intentions of a general audience seeking casual inspiration from a focused selection of an artist’s masterworks. Decades in conception and execution, In a Modern Rendering is thoroughly seductive, but for its scale (and list price), it’s not an ideal introduction. That said, Nancy Green’s readable biographical essay provides a sound overview of the artist’s life and includes some novel and revealing details. Born in Germany in 1881, Baumann’s parents moved to Chicago when he was ten, and the budding artist began attending the School of the Art Institute in his teens, at one of its most fecund and influential periods. Baumann wasn’t the first of his Chicago peers to discover New Mexico, but he planted deeper roots than most. Fellow master printmaker and Baumann’s soul-heir Tom Leech contributes a heartfelt reflection on decades spent working with the artist’s materials, upholding his legacy at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors. A series of shorter essays elucidates technical aspects of the artist’s work, including seven dense pages on the papers he used and six pages alone on his use of signature print chops. While invaluable to experts, even skimmed by the layman, this information can reveal how the familiarity of Baumann’s images conceals the millennia of technical and aesthetic developments they represent, not to mention one man’s lifetime of hard-won mastery.