-technique of printing designs from planks of wood incised parallel to the vertical axis of the wood’s grain. It is one of the oldest methods of making prints from a relief surface, having been used in China to decorate textiles since the 5th century ad. In Europe, printing from wood blocks on textiles was known from the early 14th century, but it had little development until paper began to be manufactured in France and Germany at the end of the 14th century. Cuts with heavy outline and little shading, as the “Christ Before Herod” (British Museum), may date from 1400. Religious images and playing cards were first made from wood blocks in the early 15th century, and the development of printing from movable type led to widespread use of woodcut illustrations in the Netherlands and in Italy. With the 16th century, black-line woodcut reached its greatest perfection with Albrecht Dürer and his followers Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein.
The woodcut process was widely used for popular illustrations in the 17th century, but no major artist employed it. In the early 19th century it was replaced by wood engraving, which reproduced paintings and sculpture more easily and accurately than did woodcuts. Woodcut became an important medium to the German Expressionists, who, inspired by the vitality of medieval woodcuts, gouged and roughly hewed the wood to achieve a brutal effect.
Woodcuts also play an important role in the history of Japanese art. During the 17th century, a style of genre art called ukiyo-e gained prominence in Japan. Woodcuts served as a convenient and practical way of filling the large demand for inexpensive ukiyo-e pictures. The creation of the ukiyo-e woodcut is attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu (c. 1618–c. 1694), whose designs for illustrations of popular literature were immediately successful.
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