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Hand and Heart

Gustave Baumann left a legacy of woodblock-printed images of the American landscape that have become iconic.

Gustave Baumann, Talaya Peak, 1924

Gustave Baumann, Talaya Peak, 1924

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Gustave Baumann, a German-born artist, was one of the pioneers of the color woodcut in 20th-century America. His large-format, ambitious prints, made from as many as seven blocks, have a shimmering beauty that is unique. The rich hues that fill his images—purples, pinks, yellows, and deep blues—interpenetrate to make new colors or give the effect of light passing through moisture in the air or filtering through a canopy of leaves. A Baumann print can also be quickly recognized by the characteristic framing device of tiny dots that serve as a border for the image, and by the artist’s monograph—a stylized open hand represented as negative space within an orange-red heart. The merger of hand and heart speaks to Baumann’s lifelong devotion to craft, his love of his subjects, and his desire to follow his own way, even if it was not necessarily the way to the maximum fame or wealth.

While Baumann produced several distinct bodies of work and also engaged in commercial illustration (for example, a series of advertisements for the Packard Motor Car Company in the 1920s), his subjects were notably consistent over the course of his 60-plus-year career. The landscape was his grand passion, whether it was the Indiana countryside, upstate New York, California, or the American Southwest, particularly the area around Taos and Santa Fe, where he lived from 1918 until his death in 1971. Human beings are not the stars of Baumann’s show; if figures appear in his prints, they tend to be small and faceless, sometimes with their backs turned to the viewer. In this respect his work is reminiscent of the Asian art traditions that were among his inspirations. But the touch of the human hand upon the landscape is very much a part of his work—he dwelt lovingly on the traditional adobe architecture of New Mexico and on the simplicity of Midwestern farmhouses and dooryard gardens.

Baumann was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1881. Ten years later, his family emigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago. When he was 15, his father deserted the family, and young Gus had to start earning money. Already showing a facility for drawing, he got himself hired by the Franklin Engraving Company and subsequently worked for several similar Chicago firms. His career in commercial engraving gave him his first education in printmaking, albeit of a very different kind than what he later pursued as a fine artist. By 1901, aged 20, he was doing well enough in the advertising game to open his own studio. But his aspirations lay elsewhere, and he was soon taking night classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1904, the year he became an American citizen, Baumann returned to his native country to study art at the Königliche Kunstgewerbeschule in Munich.

It was there that he was introduced to the medium of woodcut and learned the difficult technique of building up an image from several blocks, one for each color. Gala Chamberlain, the director of Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, Calif., which represents the Baumann estate, says of his technique at this time: “The colors he used in Germany were very dark and dense. He started with just three blocks and then added blocks as he progressed, changing from a flat effect with outline to colors in layers.” As he matured as an artist, Baumann loosened up his technique, going from a fairly tight effect with detailed line work to a freer style that relied more on pure color and broader fields of ink. At the height of his powers, Baumann was able to balance out the tension between the two poles in his work to achieve the special quality that accounts for his continuing appeal. Jeff Thurston of Zaplin Lampert Gallery in Santa Fe, which carries a large selection of Baumann prints, says the artist’s “combination of creativity and artistic freedom with Germanic technique and precision is what makes him unique.” To imitate him has proved almost impossible, and to this day, he has had very few emulators, according to Thurston, who cites Baumann’s fellow New Mexican Willard Clark as the closest to him in style.

After less than two years in Germany, Baumann was back in Chicago, where he found a group of like-minded artists in the Palette and Chisel Club. In 1909 he and some fellow club members went to join an emerging artists’ colony in Brown County, Ind. While there Baumann produced a portfolio of small prints titled The Hills of Brown (1910), as well as some of the largest-format woodcuts to be produced in America at the time. His career was taking off: In 1915 he exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where he took the gold medal for printmaking, and in 1917 he embarked on a cross-country printmaking journey that included Wyoming, N.Y., Provincetown, Mass., and New York City. Some of the Provincetown prints, such as Mending the Seine, have an almost Pointillist quality in the way they render light reflecting off water. In Manhattan, Baumann made a print, Fifth Avenue, that depicts American flags flapping from every building during what must have been a World War I rally. Somewhat reminiscent of Childe Hassam, this is now among Baumann’s most expensive prints, despite the fact that it is not typical of his work. Rarity is the reason—according to Chamberlain, only about 25 impressions are extant.

Baumann’s long and intimate relationship with northern New Mexico began with his friendship in Chicago with the painter Walter Ufer, who had discovered the Taos area a few years before and was among the charter members of the Taos Society of Artists. Taos was gaining a reputation as an ideal place for artists due to its phenomenal scenery and cultural diversity, with Native American and Hispanic communities thriving alongside a growing contingent of bohemian Anglos. Baumann arrived in Santa Fe in 1918 on the way to Taos and decided to stay, because there was less competition there among artists. However, there were also no galleries and no studio space. Help came in the form of Edgar Lee Hewett, an archaeologist and patron of the arts who recognized Baumann’s potential and set him up with a studio space in the historic Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe’s main square. Within five years, Baumann was able to establish his own home studio, which he maintained to the end of his life. In his modest house he made space for a number of collections of objects of regional interest, such as Hispanic santos and Pueblo Indian kachinas. One of his most unusual compositions, Hopi Katzinas (1925), is a representation of his own collection, with the figurines spread out on the surface of a table in way that makes them look like they are suspended in a space all their own. In his house, Baumann kept his dolls on special shelves that he decorated with painted backdrops, like miniature landscapes.

Living in Santa Fe, which was nothing like the international art market it is today, Baumann lacked access to dealers and so had to find his own way to make a living. He ended up relying on nationwide organizations including the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the American Federation of Art, and the Society of Western Artists to circulate his editions and put him in touch with collectors. While he never got rich, he was able to support himself and his family for decades through his art. “He was not financially successful, but he was content,” says Chamberlain. “His wife tried to get people to convince him to raise his prices, but he didn’t want to.” Thurston says, “He wanted them to be affordable, within reason.”

Today, prices for Baumann prints are, of course, much higher—though still reasonable in relation to their quality. Many can be had for around $5,000, and many more in the $7,500–15,000 range. The top retail prices for Baumann prints now are around $35,000, according to Thurston, who cites several that for reasons of popularity and rarity combined can reach this level—Grand Canyon (1934), Procession (1930), Cottonwood Tassels (1946), and Day of the Deer Dance (1919). Robert Newman of The Old Print Shop in New York calls the striking pink-tinged Grand Canyon Baumann’s “most valuable print,” and in general, in terms of subject matter, the Southwestern ones are most sought after. Other factors than can make a difference in price include special features having to do with printmaking technique, such as the aluminum leaf that Baumann used for the sky in Procession.

The fine points of editions can make a difference, too. Baumann sometimes made subsequent editions decades after the initial one, using different colors. Chamberlain, who is working on the artist’s catalogue raisonné, cites a rare first-edition example of Church Ranchos de Taos (1919) with a different color scheme from the later-printed examples one usually sees, and with the image’s negative space rendered differently. Annex prices this print higher than usual. Baumann kept his blocks carefully organized and in excellent condition so that he could continue to print from them as needed, usually in editions of 100 or 125. When Baumann decided that he would not print any more editions of an image, he would retire or cancel the blocks. Thurston says that there is now a market for Baumann’s blocks, which are of interest not only historically and aesthetically but because “they help people wrap their heads around how he did it.”

New collectors should be aware that Baumann’s daughter authorized mechanical reproductions to be made of around six or seven of his images, and these sometimes appear for sale on the internet advertised as originals. The reproductions can be recognized by the facts that they are three inches larger than the originals and have a printed text on the border that reads, “color print by Gustave Baumann.” Since the text is sometimes hidden by a mat, explains Thurston, it is best to rely on the dimensions to make the determination.

Baumann’s work continues to be prized for its beauty, its stunning technique, and its historical resonance. “The inherent beauty is number one,” says Thurston, referring to the reasons for the Baumann market’s vitality. “Secondarily, there’s now almost a 100-year track record. People have grown up with these prints.” Chamberlain says, “I think it’s really interesting that Baumann’s work is so sought after from every region in the U.S. He’s even in the British Museum. A major reason his work has gained such prestige is quality and approachability. I don’t think there’s another multi-block printer who can compete with his quality and quantity produced.”

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2017

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