T.R. sends me a huge German Expressionist type woodcut in the Medieval style; it tells two important stories in the Faust Play by Goethe. The piece is signed by Bernd Kroeber (1942), a teacher of art and travelling artist born in Austria and known in the 1960s and ‘70s in the San Francisco area for woodcuts with deep themes in monochromatic colors — which is a very old tradition in woodcuts. The inscription in the artist’s hand on the bottom says “Ad Radieur, Il Medio,” and I believe this title is meant to convey Faust’s rigidity, meeting life only halfway in his self-importance, but I could be wrong.
The piece is dated 1974 and signed in the woodcut plate “Kroeber Pinxt,” the ancient way of claiming “I painted this” often seen on medieval woodcuts.
I love woodcuts and like most forms of relief printmaking, it is difficult to get right, because the artist has to ‘see’ his end product in the negative. The artist carves an image into the surface of the wood, gouging OUT the areas that are NOT the image, leaving as the surface ONLY the (relief) areas that SHOULD be inked. Perhaps the most famous Germanic woodcut artist was Albrecht Durer.
So, what is Mr. Kroeber representing? Two scenes in the Faust Play: the first, Faust in his study, and as he is a great scholar, he is translating the Book of John, stumbling over just how to translate “In the Beginning was the Word.” He translates it thus: “In the Beginning was the Deed,” realizing that for him, action is the driving force in the universe. Well, his poodle (I always found it Germanically funny that Faust had a POODLE) sets up a deep growl, which grows louder; Faust realizes that the dog is likely possessed and calls upon his magic skills to call forth the demon, and of course out jumps Mephistopheles, dressed as a scholar himself. Check the surprised dog!
Thus, in Mr. Kroeber’s woodcut we see this moment, after which the devil and Faust will begin a debate as the devil lays out the bargain he has in mind for Faust’s soul. Faust won’t release his magic spell, forcing the devil to stay in his study, but of course, being the devil, he escapes as Faust dozes off, with the help of some local vermin.
The work is complex and must have been a major feat to carve into a big block of wood at 24″ x 15″. On the opposite side of the doubly framed pair of images, we see another famous scene from Goethe’s Faust: Mephistopheles has brought Faust to a witch’s lair set up to make potions, which we see in bottles with black magic labels. The devil has instructed the witch to prepare an elixir that will take 30 years off Faust (I might be tempted to trade my soul for that). Faust sees himself as a young man together in a mirror with a beautiful woman, and he jumps to drink the potion. We see this moment when Faust is holding the beaker, before he digresses into this baser, more carnal, more young and handsome self.
This work was also a major project to carve at the same large size as its mate; a size rare for a woodcut, as so many things can go wrong when the artist pulls the piece off the wood block after pressing the paper down hard.
Whether or not you would hang such themes is immaterial as the work shows a mastery of the process of woodcuts beautifully. And it also references that Medieval European Woodcuts were one of the first communication devices known in art: wood was cheap to cut, and once inked, multiples of any image could be made as opposed to an original painting or drawing. In fact, many broadsides were printed this way as political and religious persuasion tools, some without words, as most of the population could not read. The artist is referring to this tradition as well, in the graphic and simplistic full fronted shock of an image in a linear style in a single color.
Sorry to say that Mr. Kroeber does not have much of a following at auction, and such pieces as this complex and historically referential piece might sell for as little as a few hundred bucks. By the way, the owner would like to sell if my readers need a dose of Faust on the wall. Might be a good panacea at the tail end of this darned pandemic.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s column appears every week in the Salon & Style section. Her new book, “Collect Value Divest: The Savvy Appraiser,” is available at local bookstores and at amazon.com. Send questions and photos to Ask the Gold Digger, c/o News-Press, P.O. Box 1359, Santa Barbara 93102-1359, or email ElizabethApprasals@gmail.com