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Printed History

German Expressionists depict the harsh realities of life in World War I–era Germany through the MOA’s new exhibit Reconciliation.

Households require numerous technologies and gadgets to function. Amidst ovens, lights, computers, and televisions, one tool common in houses worldwide seems often overlooked: the humble printer. While modern-day printers often plague their users with roundabout instructions that never seem to quite work, they once required only a block of wood, ink, and woodcutters to make a print. In the BYU Museum of Art (MOA)’s exhibition titled Reconciliation: Biblical Imagination in German Expressionist Prints, viewers learn about a time when woodblock printers were used in place of digital printers—they proved instrumental in making newspapers and books and, more importantly, in creating art.

The entrance of the Reconciliation exhibit.
Photo by Emma Mafi

On March 15, 2024, the MOA introduced this new exhibit, which starts off with an introduction to woodblock print. This method of print involves carving a design into blocks of wood and creating a stamp-like device that writers and artists could then cover in ink and press on paper to make a print. German painter Albrecht Dürer put this print art on the map, bringing intricate, black-and-white print images into the realm of artistry. Later on, as Germany became more involved with Africa, German artists began to incorporate African styles—particularly geometrical shapes and facial depiction—into their pieces. This combination of woodblock printing and African influence led to the rise of the German Expressionist movement in the early twentieth century.

The artists of Reconciliation’s prints use unorthodox depictions of emotion to explain the social, political, and emotional state of Germany during World War I. In these Expressionist portraits, artists opted for more abstract representations of human features with the hopes of highlighting their subject’s psychological state instead of settling for a recreation of their exterior. In addition, many German Expressionists used religious stories and ideas to help explain two major conflicts German citizens faced as a result of the war: solitude and isolation.

In Christian Rohlfs’s woodcut print titled Return of the Prodigal Son, he explores the joy resulting from an end to the son’s isolation. Rohlfs’s strategic use of ink shows the intensity of emotion accompanying the prodigal son’s return. The artist chose to focus on the end of solitude and isolation to inspire hope despite ongoing conflict.

Käthe Kollwitz, another German Expressionist artist, used drypoint (a method of print that uses a steel needle to engrave on a copper plate) and etching (using acid to carve designs on a piece of metal) to show how someone can hold on to hope despite facing death. By the end of the war, nearly two million Germans had died from combat or injury. Additionally, infant mortality rates in the early 1900s skyrocketed, leaving communities with a palpable sense of loss. In an effort to make sense of the tragedies of her time, Kollwitz created numerous pieces that show her subjects as triumphant despite death, not as victims. In her piece Death and Woman Struggling over a Child, Kollwitz shows the reality of loss with the image of a woman holding onto her child as Death threatens to take the child away. Though the scene portrays a harsh reality of the time, both mother and child show strength in the troubling moment.

These prints represent only a fraction of the pieces housed in the Reconciliation exhibition. Throughout the display, artists offer insight into life during the Expressionist movement, and, while at the MOA, they allow onlookers to reflect on loss and hope from a fresh perspective.

Learn more about Reconciliation: Biblical Imagination in German Expressionist Prints on the MOA website.