Against the Grain: Woodcuts from the Permanent Collection

January 15 – April 30, 2022


Printmaking has been used for centuries and for a variety of purposes, including printing texts, advertisements, patterns on fabric, and fine art. The earliest form of printmaking traces back to the Han Dynasty in China, around 206 BC to 220 AD. Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in Germany around 1440, enabling the mass production of printed products and revolutionizing how information was shared with a significantly wider audience throughout Europe.

Woodcut, the oldest technique used in fine art printmaking, is a form of relief printing. Against the Grain highlights the diversity and history of woodcut prints, including examples from as early as 1496. Woodcuts are one of many printmaking techniques and are created by carving into a block of wood, traditionally basswood or cherry. It is a reductive process, meaning that the carved areas do not receive ink. Once the surface is carved, ink is transferred onto the block.

For traditional Western printmaking, oil-based ink is rolled onto the surface of the block using a tool called a brayer. The block is then placed on a printing press, with paper laid on top of the block. The woodblock and paper are then rolled through the press which applies even pressure, thus transferring the image onto the paper. For traditional Japanese printmaking, water-based inks are brushed on with a specialized maru bake brush. Paper is then placed over the block and hand-printed using a tool called a baren. By carefully rubbing over the whole block with considerable pressure, the image is transferred to the paper. This method is called mokuhanga.

The selected works in this exhibition illustrate the vast range of styles and subjects that can be accomplished through the woodcut process. The styles range from classical to abstract and emphasize the wide-ranging influence of this form of printmaking on generations of artists.

Angel of Death (1959) by Leonard Baskin shows the precision that can be accomplished with woodcut prints. His lines are smooth and appear as if the artist has drawn the image directly on the paper. Baskin’s work demonstrates a stark contrast to the approach employed by Matthias Mansen. In Halbfiguren (1983), Mansen’s print appears to be roughly carved. This style of quick, broad mark-making illustrates the free nature of his carving, as opposed to Baskin’s very controlled method. While both artist’s focus on the human form, their finished images convey strikingly different outcomes.

In the print Untitled by an unknown Japanese artist, the traditional method of Japanese woodblock printing is demonstrated. By comparing this early work to the contemporary piece Dialogue in Red (1975) by Hiroyuki Tajima, the viewer can see the development of Japanese printmaking techniques over hundreds of years. Tajima’s work is completely abstract and relies on luminous color and biomorphic forms, rather than representational figures. Modern printmakers actively experiment with traditional methods, while also seeking new ways to achieve meaning in their work. The woodcut technique continues to be a process that artists explore as a way to enhance and expand their artistic practice.

The exhibition was organized by ZAM’s 2021-2022 Curatorial Intern, Delaney Burns


  • Ernst Barlach (German,  1870 – 1938). Coffin Robber, 1922. Woodcut. Gift of Ernest Lowenstein, Roten Galleries, 56.24.G
  • Leonard Baskin (American, 1922 – 2000). Angel of Death, 1959. Woodcut. Gift of Beverly & Larry Bader, 2007.7
  • Albrecht Durer (German,  1471 – 1528). Christ Crowned with Thorns, 1496. Woodcut. Museum purchase: The Kenduskeag Fund.
  • Aline Feldman (American, born 1928). Hawaiian Memory (Kauai) diptych, 1985. Woodcut with hand coloring on Okawara paper. Gift of Robert Venn Carr Jr., Class of 1938.
    88.10.5a and 5b
  • Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928 – 2011). Essence Mulberry, 1977. Color Woodcut. Bequest of Robert Venn Carr Jr., Class of 1938, 2004.9.61
  • Erich Heckel (German,  1883 – 1970). Junges Madchen (Young Girl), 1913. Woodcut. Museum purchase: The Kenduskeag Fund, 61.23.G
  • Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese, 1786 – 1864). Inuzika Kabuki Dancer and Ichikawa Kabuki Dancer. Both works: 1850. Both works: Woodcut. Both works: Gift of Dwight Holmes, Class of 1952, 98.4.4 and 98.4.5
  • Matthias Mansen (German,  born 1958). Halbfiguren, 1983. Woodcut. Bequest of Robert Venn Carr Jr., Class of 1938, 2004.9.101
  • Hans Alexander Mueller (American, born Germany, 1888 – 1962). Self-Portrait, 1948. Color Woodcut. Museum purchase, 61.26.G
  • Judy Pfaff (American, born 1946). Yoyogi I, 1983. Woodcut. Gift of Robert Venn Carr Jr., Class of 1938, 89.1.4
  • Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German,  1884 – 1976). Frau mit aufgelostem Haar (Woman with Her Hair Undone), 1913. Bequest of Robert Venn Carr Jr., Class of 1938,
    2004.9.123; The Reader, 1919. Museum purchase, 61.26.G. Both works: Woodcut.
  • Hiroyuki Tajima (Japanese, 1911 – 1984). Dialogue with Red, 1975. Color Woodcut. Gift of Marson Graphics, 77.24.G
  • Unknown Japanese Artist. Unknown, no date. Woodcut. Gift of Charles Byrne,