Thursday, 17 April 2014

Martha Cunz: the Dutch Connection (I)

Martha Cunz 
(St.Gallen-Switserland, 1876-1961)

Swiss painter and pioneer woodblock printmaker

This blog is not intended to high-light the already famous and well researched printmaking artists: Martha Cunz is such an artist. There are better and reliable sites to inform you about Martha Cunz who studied with Ernst Neumann in Munich Art Academy. What is more important and interesting she is among the very first artists to try at color woodblock printmaking in the beginning of the 20th century. 

Her earliest prints, after initially trying at lithography, are dated as early as 1901. Of this "Birken" lithography a single copy of a woodblock print is known. By 1905 she was able to show, in the annual Glass Palace Exhibition in Munich truly great prints in the Japanese way created in the two years before. In contrast to her many later printmaking colleagues, like Carl Thiemann, 5 years her younger and inspired by her printmaking, Walter Klemm and the Neumann brothers Ernst and Hans, she eventually became obscured but since long has been rediscovered and rehabilitated. 

"Abend" (night in in St. Gallen) and "Frühling" (Spring) the two prints shown in the 1905 exhibition were created in 1903/04. 1904 was the year Emil Orlik who taught Klemm and Thiemann, was appointed professor in Berlin. She experimented and printed the black key block on the back of the paper to soften its tone. 


The reason for this posting is recently finding in a junkshop this mystery print without a signature or monogram. The preliminary outcome of my research I share today. 

After some puzzling it became clear it shows the harbor of the fishing village of Harderwijk with characteristic herring fishing boats (type: botter), a sailing freighter (type: skutsje or tjalk), the fish-hall were the catch was sold and  auctioned, some houses and, vaguely, the windmill named "de Hoop". 
The way the windmill is depicted is peculiar, in a light relief, created with two different shades of brown. After removing the mat (passe-partout) it is clear the darkest brown color block had probably shifted (a registering fault ?) from the left and lower margins. The framer neatly disguised and hid this "problem" under the mat.   

The Harderwijk Mill, de Hoop (Hope) originally was build in 18th century but the wooden supra structure burned to the brick build mill-base after being struck by lightning in 1909. Classic windmills often were (and are) rebuild and recycled, they had a tendency to burn of friction or strike of lighting. It was rebuild in 1911 (and it burned again in 1969 and again was rebuild). 

Martha Cunz visited the Netherlands, in 1904 and again in 1910. During her first visit and stay several of her sketches later were used as designs for prints of which two are windmills (dated 1905 and 1907)

And from this print, a view on Volendam harbor, another of Hollands "Zuiderzee" fishing villages, the sketch also survived. Her painting in oil of Volendam shows her painting skills probably meeting with the other artists staying in the artist Hotel Spaander in Volendam. From 1931 Martha Cunz turned away from printmaking to paint the rest of her long life in het studio in St.Gallen.

And here are some more of her Dutch prints: "Night in Volendam", with similar great "Japanese blues" as used in the St. Gallen print.  

And "Mondschein",  that I think could very well be a moonlit Dutch farm.


Carl Thiemann, in 1905 finishing his studies in Prag, also visited the Netherlands, somewhere between 1908-10, and it is said, although the two artist probably never met, he was not only impressed and inspired by Martha Cunz' printing technique, but most of all her birches, 

and Dutch windmill prints,

but also by her Dutch fishing boats. In this perticular boat print (Venice 1910) Thiemann uses the same technique of rendering the reflection of the boat in the water, the sails, and also uses similar browns as in the Harderwijk print.  Later Thiemann turned to a lighter color pallet. Assuming "Harderwijk" is also 1910'ish I have no clue about any Dutch printmaker who could achieve such a result in these early years of printmaking, simply because there weren't any around or even born yet.      
Like Harderwijk, Spakenburg-Bunschoten, Marken, Enkhuizen and the Frisian cities of Stavoren and Hindeloopen (where I've found this print) these villages and cities had traditional herring fleets, that is, before the final closing of the Afsluitdijk, a masterpiece of Dutch engineering, in 1932 turning the Zuiderzee into Lake IJsselmeer blocking the herring, creating safety for millions but ending traditional fishery. 

The importance and influence of Martha Cunz on all later Modern Printmakers, her achievement to create prints like these early examples in such a short time of trial, error and effort (in 1904 !) and probably without direct guidance from Emil Orlik, cannot be emphasized enough I believe. 

Which brings me to my next posting and very much related puzzle and problem.

All pictures borrowed freely from the Internet for friendly, educational and non commercial use only.


  1. You know I love her. It's wonderful to see a bunch of new-to-me images! Really nice ones! So thank you!

    1. Sorry to my late respons Lily. There's something changed, I do not seem to receive notice of any new comments by email any more and stumbled over them today.

  2. Great post! I had never heard of Martha Cunz, so thank you for the introduction. She taught herself well in the art of woodblock printing!

    1. She is quite famous in Europe and Switzerland Annie and a great innovative artist.

  3. Try double checking your settings, Gerrie. Various things on my machine seem to reset themselves all the time!