If Emil Orlik went all the way to Japan to learn the art of woodcut, then Siegfried Berndt (1880 - 1946) did the next best thing: he went to Scotland. He was born in Goerlitz in the far south-east of Germany in 1880. If he had been born in 1889 as some people seem to think, he would have been nine years old when he entered the Academy of Fine Art in Dresden and although he came out as a prizewinner, even Berndt wasn't that sort of prodigy.
I've started this post off with two versions of Auf der Rehde (the topmost is from 1925, the one below from 1911) to try and give some idea of what kind of an artist we are dealing with here: someone willing to try out new ideas and someone who was willing to learn. At Dresden between 1899 and 1906, a leading student of the landscape painter Eugen Bracht (1842 - 1921), he had also managed to become an accomplished printmaker. My hunch is that, like Orlik, he had to pick things up where he could. Winning a travel scholarship in 1907 certainly gave him the chance to study far away from the academy.
Paris was an essential stop-off on the itinerary and Bruckenlandscahft von St Cloud shows an artist who has not only learned from Japanese woodblock but an artist who was well-aware of the lessons of French impression. But what strikes me most about this work is the freedom of his handling. This is still a painter's work, with none of the graphic qualities we associate with C19th Japanese printmaking. In fact, I will say this now: I think talk of the influence of Japanese art on Berndt has been overdone. I don't know if this print was made in France or when he returned to Germany. He also visited Belgium.
But Scotland is far more intriguing. I certainly can't think of any German or Austrian printmaker that made Scotland the subject of one print let alone two. In Hafen von Stranraer he moves sideways into the spare, muted territory of the German printmaker Wilhelm Laage. Unfortunately, I was unable to track down an image of Brucke uber der Firth of Forth but Edinburgh is nearer to home. The idea that fascinates me is this one: Frank Morley Fletcher has become director of the Edinburgh College of Art in 1906 and I am guessing this is what took Berndt as far as Scotland. He wanted to learn from someone who was working in the Japanese manner. (By then Orlik was not). I also think that Orlik's Japanese prints were too literal for what Berndt wanted.
This woodcut is seriously Japanese but is seriously German as well. The sketchiness of the details also remind me of Fletcher. The glorious print below does not. This makes me think of Ponte degli Alpini by a Scotsman, Charles Hodge Mackie (1862 - 1920). What I suppose I am saying is that Berndt was somewhere between magpie and chamaeleon. It's another way of saying he was modern.
I am also going to say now that I am a late convert to the work of Siegfried Berndt despite the nice noises I have made elsewhere online. (Look if you dare). I thought his prints were hesitant and amateurish but there is nothing like the kind of photographs you get on ebay to give the worst impression possible of any artist let alone a more experimental one like Berndt. So I didn't look farther.
It would be very easy to play spot-the-artist with Berndt. It's a temptation I'm going to resist. What I will say is that he must surely have known the work of the impressionists as well as Cezanne and Van Gogh. The three cows are starker than Walther Klemm would have done them but I think he knew Klemm's early woodcuts. (Klemm taught in Weimar from 1913 onwards). The strong colours and high horizon are Klemm with the Vienna Secession removed. The use of other artists is a key to his prolific printmaking - remember that he was also painting.
I am going to leave you to make up your own minds about the rest of these strong and varied prints. Yes, he often does boats and water but he is far less susceptible to the old standby of snow. (I held a snow scene back, partly because the image was murky). I don't really know a great deal about his life or career after he returned to Dresden. He married and between 1932 and 1941 taught at Waldorfschule. There must be other written sources in German somewhere and his prints are still available. A commercial Berlin gallery held an exhibition of his woodcuts from 1905 to 1945 only last August.
I know he came to monchrome woodcuts after the first war, surely influenced by the contemporary work first of Die Brucke and then the Expressionists. This says alot about his willingness to adapt. But true to form, he amalgamates with aplomb. Because there is Cezanne and van Gogh in the mix as well as art deco. (Those two artists I have to say come over more in his oil paintings). And with facility like that, it's no wonder he won prizes. [I forgot to say I nned to credit Annex Galleries for the 1925 version of Auf der Ruhe.]