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Henri Zerner Lecture: Christiane Baumgartner’s Monumental Woodcuts

Interior view of the Harvard Art Museums.
Interior view of the Harvard Art Museums. By Courtesy of Daderot / Wikimedia Commons
By Vivienne Germain, Contributing Writer

On March 30, the Annual Henri Zerner Lecture returned to the Harvard Art Museums for the first time since 2019. Internationally renowned German artist Christiane Baumgartner presented her monumental woodcuts, highlighting the value of slowing down and taking her time in the contexts of both her process of creating artwork by hand and her path to finding her personal artistic style.

The highly-anticipated event, sponsored by Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Harvard Art Museums, was rescheduled several times due to the Covid-19 pandemic and became the first public gathering to take place in Menschel Hall since quarantine began. Between the long wait and the impressive artist, attendees were thrilled to be there — the excitement was palpable.

“I’m a big fan of the museum, I come here often for research purposes, and in particular tonight, I’m here for this lecture because I admire the artist,” said Tiziana Rozzo, an MFA student at Lesley University.

Baumgartner, beginning her lecture by sharing some of her early works from the 1990s, emphasized that it took her a long time to figure out what exactly she wanted to create as an artist. She showcased several of her works — including a few that she does not like — because she considers them important to understanding her journey.

Much of the lecture focused on the practice of woodcutting, a form of fine art printmaking. Her technique is marked by attention to detail and small, deliberate cuts evident in the photos and videos she displayed. She does not use a laser cutter; all of her woodcuts are done by hand, contributing to the slow pace of the process. The final works possess the precision of a digital image but the aesthetic touch of a painting.

“I have a whole new appreciation for the knowledge and skill required for such a meticulous process to yield these big, impactful images,” said Harvard Professor Carrie Lambert-Beatty of the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies.

For a period of time, video became Baumgartner’s primary medium, which informed her appreciation for woodcut. Baumgartner emphasized the stark differences between the two, describing video as the quickest production technique and woodcut as the slowest. When she returned to a focus on woodcut, she used video stills as inspiration and the subjects of her work. Shifting away from more generalized techniques, Baumgartner found her signature style in 2001 with a piece titled “Lisbon I-IV,” four woodcuts crafted to depict the image of a video still.

Baumgartner’s style has continued to develop over time. For example, she only began to experiment with the use of color in the late 2010s after 25 years of woodcutting. In 2019, she began to experiment with the use of wood that was not carved.

“Sometimes what looks so easy in the end takes the most time,” said Baumgartner.

She concluded the lecture by showing photos of “Wish You Were Here” (2020), the last body of work she created before the pandemic. It depicts an island in Germany, but Baumgartner shared that it actually represents her dreamland — a “remembered landscape.” It demonstrated the evolution of her work over time, and every stage of her career was of great interest to the audience.

“When she first showed us her technique of carving, it was so shocking, and then by the end of the lecture, it felt like I had gone through the whole process with her,” said Molly German, who studied Painting at Boston University and currently works in the department of History. “It was a very exciting experience.”

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