The process of making a woodcut is violent. The work is formed by gouging wood with a chisel, like an axe in miniature.
When the German expressionist artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff made this woodcut in 1918, an axe had been laid to Europe’s roots. It was a decimated forest.
Only ten years previously, a civilisation suddenly quickened by the promethean light of electricity seemed to be witnessing the breaking through of a new era. Schmidt-Rottluff was originally associated with this exploratory and playful milieu. But this same capacity for innovation then afforded new ways to inflict suffering.
His woodcuts may be seen as mirroring the indiscriminate brutality that ensued. But Schmidt-Rottluff used them to hack his way through to the beating heart of European art: its Christian iconography. (This print was part of a series of eight woodcuts on New Testament themes.) In a sense he was like the psalmist of Psalm 88; outlining a harsh contradiction between promise and fulfilment. He recalled how once-civilized peoples had formerly seen themselves, while simultaneously lamenting how they had turned out.
Machine-gun fire leaves no room for shades of grey. Schmidt-Rottluff chose black-and-white.
Christ’s face itself seems to be wooden, as though itself a carved object. The square stub of the nose speaks of artifice; it exposes that which is humanly-formed as primitive and crude. His left eye is swollen and squinting like the black-eye of a bar-room brawler, and both eyes have roughly-cut black rectangles for their conflated irises and pupils, making it difficult to apportion any specific emotion to the face.
Something cryptic is indicated by the gouged-out date on the forehead. One might expect the letters INRI here, the quintessential scriptural locus of a contradiction between promise and fulfilment. Schmidt-Rottluff leaves a question to his contemporaries suspended in mid-air, ‘did not Christ appear to you?’. He reminds his viewers of the giddy heights of their original prospects as human creatures, while simultaneously plumbing the depths of their devastation. In this way, his work mirrors the refusal of the psalmist to give way entirely to either hope or despair.
Elger, Dietmar. 2002. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art (Köln: Taschen Verlag)
88O Lord, my God, I call for help by day;
I cry out in the night before thee.
2Let my prayer come before thee,
incline thy ear to my cry!
3For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5like one forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom thou dost remember no more,
for they are cut off from thy hand.
6Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7Thy wrath lies heavy upon me,
and thou dost overwhelm me with all thy waves. Selah
8Thou hast caused my companions to shun me;
thou hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon thee, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to thee.
10Dost thou work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise thee? Selah
11Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,
or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
12Are thy wonders known in the darkness,
or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13But I, O Lord, cry to thee;
in the morning my prayer comes before thee.
14O Lord, why dost thou cast me off?
Why dost thou hide thy face from me?
15Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer thy terrors; I am helpless.
16Thy wrath has swept over me;
thy dread assaults destroy me.
17They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in upon me together.
18Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.