Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Uri," "Schwitz," and "Underwalden" by Urs Graf

Urs Graf is typically credited with inventing the white line woodcut technique (the kind where white lines are carved out of the block, which is then printed with black ink on white paper), but more accurately, he took something recently invented by others and made it great; the earliest example of the technique dates to when Graf was only 17 years old.

These are three images from Graf's Standard Bearers series of Swiss soldiers. They date to the 1521. These three represent Uri, Schwitz, and Underwalden, the three cantons that founded the Old Swiss Confederacy some time between 1291 and 1315, which set the political groundwork for modern Switzerland.

What captivates me the most about these images is the expressive linework, despite the meticulously organized compositions. There is so much going on in each of these images, even more-so because every purposeful mark seems alive.

Graf understood the unity that can be achieved through this technique. Billowing plumes mimic shadows on metal and fabric alike. Highlights that define a human face take effort to separate from all the other lines that describe the folds and curves of every surface. The ground beneath the soldiers' feet moves with them as if an extension of their bodies.

The reversal from what we normally expect from black and white drawings and prints achieves an otherworldly quality. The more sizable swathes of solid black in the flags and the soldier's bodies drop into the endless black voice of the background, leaving many of the white lines almost as loose as dangling thread. These three soldiers appear more like spirits - strong and proud in concept or memory - than they resemble men of flesh and blood.

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