Fritz Eichenberg liked to point out that his German last name meant "oak mountain," as if this, somehow, explained his extraordinary mastery of the medium of wood engraving. In a creative lifetime dedicated to graphics, Eichenberg occasionally experimented with lithographs and linocuts but always felt most inspired with a graver in hand, creating meticulous white-line prints from wooden panels, preferably, made from endgrain boxwood.
He was a visual artist whose work was inextricably bound up with words in hundreds of illustrations for books and periodicals. In a 1976 self-portrait titled Dream of Reason, the artist sleeps over an open volume, engraving tool in hand, while the ghosts of all the authors whose writings he illustrated--Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Desiderius Erasmus, Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev--peer expectantly over his shoulder.
As a student of Russian Literature, I came to know Eichenberg's art long before I knew anything about the artist, discovering his marvelous prints in the pages of classic 19th Century Russian novels like Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov or Tolstoy's Resurrection. Eichenberg had this uncanny ability to pin down the elusive Russian soul in a pictorial style, best described as expressionistic realism. The backgrounds in Eichenberg's illustrations were always full of persuasive period details, yet, the figures seemed wonderfully theatrical and dramatically highlighted. I loved the faces most of all. They had the ascetic beauty of icons.
I was not surprised to learn later than Eichenberg was a man of faith, who once described art in sacramental terms as the "outward sign of inward grace." In the mid-1950s, he produced a suite of Ten Wood Engravings for the Old Testament. In 1972, he created a folio of prints based on In Praise of Folly, a 16th century satirical work by Christian Humanist Eramus, poking fun at human vanity and corruption in the Medieval Church.
A shared love for Dostoyevsky drew Eichenberg, a German Jewish convert to Quakerism, into a unique creative partnership with Roman Catholic Social Activist Dorothy Day, a meeting of kindred minds, uniting image-making and social conscience in ways, which have immeasurably enriched and democratized contemporary sacred art. During a forty year period, beginning in 1949, Eichenberg contributed over 100 illustrations to Day's banner publication, The Catholic Worker, more than fulfilling her hopes that the spirit of the newspaper's editorial content could be communicated through accompanying images to Day's friends and supporters who had trouble reading the texts.
Fritz Eichenberg observed and commented on many of the pivotal events of the past century, including both World Wars, Weimar Germany, and post-war social activism. Born in 1901, as a young child living in Germany during World War I, Eichenberg endured the nightly bombing raids sustained by his industrial city of Cologne. It was during this time that he realized his desire to become "an artist with a message," and examine the human condition through caricature. Eichenberg noted in his autobiography, ""During the last days of the war I used to go up to the roof of our house to pick up shrapnel souvenirs from the night's bombing raids. Undernourished, as we all were, I collapsed one morning in front of Dr. Fritz Witte's door. He was a famous art historian, priest and curator of the Schnutgen Museum of Religious Art." Dr. Witte, after discovering Eichenberg's artistic desires, gave him a book that contained works by Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, William Hogarth, and other artists who commented upon their milieu. For the young Eichenberg, this provided the impetus and encouragement that he needed to begin pursuing his career.
After an apprenticeship at a printing shop, where Eichenberg learned the basics of lithography, he began designing advertisements for a department store. During this time, he continued to sketch his surroundings and capture the essential elements of a situation through sharp observation, infused with great empathy for his subjects. Desiring to further his artistic training, Eichenberg enrolled in the Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig and found a mentor in Professor Hugo Steiner-Prag. His professor, a central figure in 20th-century European book illustration, introduced the art of book illustration to Eichenberg. Encouraged by his teacher, Eichenberg resolved to become a successful book illustrator in order to support himself and express his social conscience.
For ten years, Eichenberg lived and worked in Weimar Berlin, creating illustrations for Ullstein's magazines, newspaper, and books. His biting images for the satirical magazine UHU mocked the political and military elite, including the ever-growing Nazi Party. As the political and economic situation of Weimar Germany spiraled downward after the worldwide economic depression of 1929, and the National Socialist party gained strength, Eichenberg looked toward the future with great foreboding. By March of 1933, with Hitler and the National Socialists in control of Germany, Eichenberg planned a business trip to the Americas under the pretext of drawing illustrations of the United States, Mexico, and South American countries for German publications; however, feeling uneasy about the situation in Germany, Eichenberg was searching for a new and safe home for his wife and child. Upon his return with numerous sketches, he arranged for a second trip to the United States late in 1933; however, this time he planned to bring his family and not return to Germany. Soon after the Eichenbergs arrived in New York, the editors at Ullstein, now under the control of the Nazi party, fired him from his position. In order to support himself in his new country, Eichenberg turned to teaching.
Eichenberg began teaching wood engraving at the New School for Social Research, and creating images for the Federal Arts Project and The Nation. During this period he developed contacts within the publishing industry and once again began illustrating books. During the next years of his career, he received a consistent stream of projects for illustrating major works of literature, including books by Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, Swift, Poe, and the classics of Russian literature, including War and Peace, Fathers and Sons, Anna Karenina, and The Brothers Karamazov.
He found that book illustration was a suitable medium for his personality, as he found literature to be a means for personal escape. Eichenberg brought his own intense identification with the author and the characters to his illustrations, thus his images opened a new world for the reader's understanding of a text. Already established as as successful and prosperous commercial illustrator of literature, in 1949 when he met the Christian social justice activist Dorothy Day, he began a parallel career as an illustrator of religious images for Day's newspaper The Catholic Worker.
Eichenberg became a member of the Religious Society of Friends in 1940, shortly after the sudden death of his first wife. He wrote and illustrated two pamphlets, Art and Faith (1952) and Artist on the Witness Stand (1984), for the Quaker-affiliated press, Pendle Hill Publications. It is perhaps his religious images that provide a glimpse of the persona to which Eichenberg aspired, and were most personally rewarding.
"I see you working with wood," a gypsy palm reader once told Fritz Eichenberg as she studied his hand. "You are surrounded by people listening to you. You must be--a violinist!"
"I was crushed," the artist and illustrator recalled decades later. "She had come so close to telling me about my real vocation." Eichenberg's work is unveiled in all its splendor in "Witness to Our Century: An Artistic Biography of Fritz Eichenberg," the current exhibition at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery. Though he was not a violinist, he did indeed work with wood, as a master printmaker. Of the thousands of woodblock prints he made, more than 100 are presently on display at Vanderbilt.
This show has been several years in the making. In 1995, Nashville art collector Walter Schatz approached Joseph Mella, curator of the Vandy Fine Arts Gallery, about organizing an Eichenberg exhibition. Mella traveled to the University of Rhode Island, where Schatz and Robert Conway, director of the Fritz Eichenberg trust, were surveying the artist's estate. The estate consisted of several thousand objects, including drawings, sketches, posters, advertisements, woodblock prints, even woodblocks themselves.
"The vast majority of the work is going to Yale University," Mella explains. "We saw a little window of opportunity to pull together from this incredible collection many works that have never been exhibited before." Of the 180 objects on display, a number of pieces also come from Schatz's own collection.
Eichenberg's images are scattered through our culture, on posters, in cartoons, and in countless book illustrations. Many viewers will be surprised to find that they have always known his drawings. Joseph Mella, for instance, knew Eichenberg's work through "the childhood experience of seeing [his] images on the cover of the Catholic Worker magazine. My parents subscribed to that because they met each other in New York in the early '30s, through the Catholic Worker, while working in the soup kitchens of the Bowery."
As a child, although I didn't know who Eichenberg was, I too grew up surrounded by his illustrations in such books as Black Beauty and The Jungle Book. "That's actually a very familiar experience," Conway explains. "People growing up, looking in their parents' libraries, know the images, but associate the image with the text and the characters, without thinking about who the illustrator was. I think Fritz was pleased by that kind of fame--anonymous fame, in a sense."
The otherwise excellent exhibit catalog misrepresents the show in one small way. On the cover is Eichenberg's 1980 print "Crucifixion," from his astonishing book Dance of Death. While an impressive monument to the Holocaust, the woodcut makes the exhibit seem more daunting than it is. Eichenberg had a powerful social conscience, one that was visible even in the books he illustrated--Gulliver's Travels, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina. But he was also a very playful artist. The exhibit does include some of the New Year's illustrations that Eichenberg sent to friends and family, and it also includes a love letter to his wife, in which he draws everything he wishes for her in the New Year--including the death of Hitler.
Life's work Fritz Eichenberg's "The Artist and the Seven Deadly Sins," one of 180 objects currently on display in the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery; the artist based the figure representing "Lust" upon one of his ex-girlfriends. The exhibit, as its title indicates, follows the artist's life. One of the larger shows the gallery has mounted, it moves chronologically along the wall from the right of the entrance. The well-written captions, along with more informative brief essays, add up to a narrative in six sections. One of the prints, of Erasmus contemplating a jester hand puppet, contains a bust of the pagan god Terminus. Both these figures shared the same motto--"Concedo nulli," or "Don't compromise"--and it's clear from his work that Eichenberg himself identified with this credo.
Several of the illustrations are striking watercolors. One is a damning portrait of a Nazi priest. In another, Eichenberg placed his name on the label accompanying the painting; he also included the year of his birth and what turned out to be the accurate year of his death. Exhibit cases contain both small works and a number of Eichenberg's books, including the autobiographical The Wood and the Graver, as well as a classic work on printmaking. It's also a pleasure to find on display a number of Eichenberg's engraving tools, which he often portrayed in his work with a craftsman's affection.
At age 16, Eichenberg encountered the work of French social satirist Honoré Daumier, whose drawings would now be called editorial cartoons. To convey the important influence of this illustrator, who could be considered one of the consciences of the 19th century, the exhibit includes early cartoons by Eichenberg portraying such scenes as unemployed workers and bar habitués. After he fled Nazi Germany and settled in New York City, the artist portrayed similar scenes in his adopted hometown. In one memorable drawing, unemployed, Depression-battered men examine the exhibits as they huddle in a science museum.
A remarkable show, "Witness to Our Century" represents the latest in a series of engaging and diverse exhibitions at Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery. Three years ago, the space hosted a show of Italian Renaissance paintings, and earlier this year it mounted an impressive selection of works from the university's collection of Asian art. Other shows have included the work of Louise Bourgeois, Mimmo Paladino, and 17th-century Dutch genre artist Adriaen van Ostade.
After it closes, "Witness to Our Century" will journey to galleries in other cities. "It's pretty exciting for us," Mella says. "It's the first national traveling exhibit we've ever organized." The show begins its tour in 1998 at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art; from there, it goes to Virginia, New York, Georgia, and Chicago. The tour ends in 2001, with the centenary of the artist's birth.
Eichenberg liked to point out some interesting coincidences in his lifelong association with trees and wood. He was born on Linden Street in Cologne, and he lived in Grunewald ("Green Forest") in Berlin. In the U.S., he lived on Oakland Avenue in Crestwood, then moved to Oakwood Drive, in the Oaks, in Peace Dale. His very name meant "Oak Mountain."
"What better medium," he once asked, "than the inky surface of the woodblock, out of which the characters emerge as if spotlighted on a darkened stage, with the graver creating the magic source of illumination?"