The Elephantine Colossus, a 31-room pachyderm-shaped hotel and tourist attraction on New York’s Coney Island, was among the first sights to greet the transatlantic voyagers aboard the Columbia as it sailed into New York Harbor in 1891. It made quite an impression on Gustave Baumann, a young immigrant to this unfamiliar land.
Baumann, in time, crafted his own indelible images of America, from the flag-studded avenues of New York to the gristmills and weathered cabins of Indiana to the great redwoods of the California coast. Baumann is known for his charming, idyllic, and sometimes bewitching woodblock prints. But until now, no single volume of his work contained all of his known color woodcuts. A newly published catalogue raisonné — the result of decades of painstaking research by Gala Chamberlain — has changed all that.
Published in September, In a Modern Rendering: The Color Woodcuts of Gustave Baumann (Rizzoli Electa, $175) is a deep dive into Baumann’s printmaking. Presenting his output of early etchings and linocuts, color woodcuts, and ephemera through 1,100 color illustrations, the hefty 648-page tome is an authoritative, comprehensive, and essential addition to the library of any serious Baumann scholar or enthusiast. And because it provides a detailed examination of his working methods, it is an invaluable resource for printmakers as well.
The book includes essays by Nancy E. Green, the Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints, and Drawings at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, and Thomas Leech, director of the Palace Press on the campus of the New Mexico History Museum, in Santa Fe.
The preliminary research for the book began in 1977 when Chamberlain, who is the director of The Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, California, began working for the gallery. Annex had been representing Baumann’s estate and showing his prints since the early 1970s. “That’s when I first met Ann [Baumann’s daughter],” says Chamberlain, a trustee of the Ann Baumann Trust. “She lived here in Santa Rosa. She really wanted a book on her father. She set it up in her trust to do so.”
After years of seeking out print collections and gathering information on Baumann with Annex Galleries owner Daniel Lienau, Chamberlain began a yearslong series of in-person interviews with Ann Baumann, who died in Santa Rosa in 2011. Her father died in Santa Fe in 1971.
“I was at Ann’s house every Monday for about eight years,” Chamberlain says. “I was so fortunate that she was there. I can’t tell you how much fun it was. The research was almost addicting. I gave up so much because I was so enamored with it all: I could not participate with friends at holidays; I couldn’t travel. The editing was so demanding. I was working 11 and 13 hours a day. So there was a little bit of missing out on life.”
Born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1881, Baumann emigrated to America at age 10. His family settled in Chicago.
He left school at age 16 and found work in an engraving house, attending night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. His early career was in commercial graphic design. In a Modern Rendering, however, isn’t a biography per se and doesn’t focus on his commercial work. Instead, it’s devoted to his prodigious output as a fine artist. There are thorough explorations of the work he produced in various stages of his career, and in various locations.
These include his somber views of Munich, made while he was at Munich’s School for Arts and Crafts, where the young artist went to study in 1905.
“The first woodcuts he did were very dark and he gradually lightened them,” Chamberlain says. “They became a bit lighter in Brown County, Indiana. But his color just exploded when he got to the Southwest.”
In the book, she writes, “He once observed that ‘a palette and theories regarding color east of the Mississippi should all be tossed in the river as you cross on the bridge.’ ”
That time in Brown County, from 1910 through 1916, was an important period in his development as a fine art printmaker. It was there that he began to carve basswood blocks for a portfolio of 12 color prints. The carving and printing involved some trial and error. (A typical color woodcut involves carving an image in relief into the woodblock, which is then inked, and the paper is laid over the inked surface. By applying pressure, the artist transfers the impression of the relief image onto the paper.) In the book’s essay “Deftness, Soul, and a Gypsy Instinct: The Creative Art of Gustave Baumann,” Green writes that few of Baumann’s contemporaries at the time were making color woodcuts, and their rarity might account for his interest in pursuing the medium.
While Baumann later lamented what he saw as a reckless treatment and subpar cutting job on the woodblocks used for the Brown County portfolio, it still proved decisive in terms of his career. He felt emboldened enough to exhibit some of the work in Paris. He started a second series of woodcuts in 1911 that are noted for their unusually large size. The biggest of these, The Mill Pond (1913), measures 25.5 by 34 inches. “The Mill Pond was the last in the series of large-format prints of Brown County and is the largest print made from wood that anyone had made up to that time,” Chamberlain writes.
Brown County proved to be a time for experimentation and learning for Baumann. While he was living there, honing his craft, there was a growing national interest in color woodcut printmaking, a trend spurred in part by the advocacy of East Coast artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow, Green says. Baumann seized the opportunity to organize a traveling print exhibition of both his own work and that of his contemporaries, which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1916.
The following year, Baumann made jaunts to Westport, Connecticut; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and western New York state, where he settled in the small village of Wyoming. Although he was only there from late spring until fall of that year, he established the studio he called the Swanli Press. Stints in Arizona and California followed in the 1920s.
But Baumann spent nearly 50 years in New Mexico, where he built a printing studio and workshop at his home on Camino de las Animas in Santa Fe. Throughout that time, he continued to use a Midget Reliance hand press, which he purchased when he was still in New York. Chamberlain cites notes he wrote to Ann and his wife, Jane, in the final years of his life, in which he expressed a desire to see the press taken out of commission upon his death, unless someone could keep it working “as it should be.”
The Palace Press in Santa Fe maintains a reproduction of Baumann’s studio to this day, much of it filled with Baumann’s tools, vials of the pigments he used for mixing colors, and the Midget Reliance, which is still operational and is occasionally used for printing demonstrations. The wood handle used to lower the iron platen onto the block to produce a print is worn from years of use by the artist’s own hand.
But as much as Santa Fe can stake a legitimate claim to Baumann, so can the other locales where he lived and produced significant bodies of work.
“Since he spent time in Brown County, Indiana, there are collectors in that region of the country that claim him as an Indiana artist,” Chamberlain says. “In fact, those years in Brown were most important in his development as an artist and he loved the region and the people. Even the images he made in New York City and Cape Cod in 1917 are prized by East Coast collectors,” she says.
THE EVOLUTION OF A MARK
In a Modern Rendering isn’t merely a compendium of one-offs of Baumann’s prints. In some cases, it also highlights an example of later editions. These side-by-side comparisons are remarkable because they reveal changes that are sometimes subtle, such as slight color variations. Baumann also recut wood blocks to alter an image for subsequent editions.
“People ask all the time, ‘Are these being reprinted?’ There are blocks out there, and I know there are full sets of blocks out there in people’s hands. But even then, it would be so impossible for someone to print it and make it look like a Baumann. There’s a lot of identifiers to making them uniquely his,” Chamberlain says.
Some of the more obvious identifiers are, of course, his signature and his most commonly known “chop” mark, the hand-in-heart symbol that adorned each print. (A printer’s chop is an embossed symbol, usually placed in the margin of a print, indicating where the print was made or whose press was used.)Chamberlain gives a detailed account of how these marks evolved over the years, from monogram chops used in his commercial work in Chicago, to his early use of the hand-in-heart chop, which first saw use when he was living in Brown County. At the Swanli Press, he used a stylized swan inside an oval, which went through its own metamorphosis.
But the hand, typically rendered inside an orange heart, predominates. Chamberlain’s research revealed that sometimes he would carve the chop directly into the margin area of the woodblock used for the print; at other times, he would use a handheld stamp, about 3 inches long, with a flat printing end in which the chop was carved. “It was so much fun to find that little wooden chop,” she says. “He must have had many of those, because the chop changes shape, and the hand does, as well.”
LIKE PICTURE BOOK STUFF
Baumann was known for using multiple blocks for many of his color woodcuts. He would ink each block with a single color and run the paper through the press several times to produce a print with multiple hues. For example, for the second edition of Three Pines he made 125 impressions using six colors: black, blue, orange, turquoise green, yellow ochre, and purple. In the first edition, crosshatching appears in the sky above the pine trees, in the upper right corner of the prints. The crosshatching is absent in the prints in the second edition, suggesting he reworked the block he used for the sky before starting the second run. The earliest impressions from the first edition date to 1926, but he continued making impressions of Three Pines as much as 30 years later.
Chamberlain gives detailed explanations of many of Baumann’s separate print runs, information that follows the entry for each color woodcut listed in the catalog. Many of these entries are eminently readable, in part due to her vivid descriptions and the historical context she often provides — but also because of the addition of the artist’s own words.
For instance, regarding Church Ranchos de Taos (1919), he wrote, “What we have become accustomed to calling the Santa Fe Style derives its distinctive character from not being consciously architectural. It harks back to the days when a building was considered no more than four walls to enclose a room.” He then cites the Ranchos de Taos church as an example of a structure that’s free from the “architectural straight jacket.” And after her entry on the woodcut Old Santa Fe, which was first printed in 1925, and which depicts a sun-drenched scene of adobe homes that seem as natural and organic as the surrounding terrain, she includes this tantalizing impression of Baumann’s:
When I first saw Santa Fe, and not being familiar with adobe architecture, the old part seemed to be like picture book stuff that somebody had dreamed up and then had found it comfortable to live in. …The town as a whole gave me the feeling of a fairly well adjusted mixture of Spanish and Anglo culture, with the Indian as an interrupted civilization still pervading it all. It made for a unique situation not likely to be found anywhere else.
In a way, Baumann could be describing much of his own vast body of work. Idiosyncratic. Personal. Like picture book stuff someone found comfortable to live in.
Baumann was a consummate craftsman with a broad range of artistic pursuits. Each year during the holiday season, the New Mexico Museum of Art — the world’s largest repository of Baumann works, with about 1,700 in all — hauls out replicas of the delightful marionettes he carved for shows that he and his family performed for friends. He carved marionettes throughout his career and even built a portable theater for them. He made furniture and created his own picture frames; he was also a painter. He brought an atypical color sense and compositional style to his paintings, which seem derivative of no one — and no particular style — that came before him. But when it came to mastering the color woodcut, the medium he’s best known for, he had no equal.
Chamberlain agrees. “Gustave Baumann,” she says, “is the most important American color woodcut artist of the 20th century.” ◀