Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Carving a Place

By Michael Sims

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  "I see you working with wood," a gypsy palm reader once told Fritz Eichenberg as she studied his hand. "You are surrounded by people listening to you. You must be--a violinist!"

"I was crushed," the artist and illustrator recalled decades later. "She had come so close to telling me about my real vocation." Eichenberg's work is unveiled in all its splendor in "Witness to Our Century: An Artistic Biography of Fritz Eichenberg," the current exhibition at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery. Though he was not a violinist, he did indeed work with wood, as a master printmaker. Of the thousands of woodblock prints he made, more than 100 are presently on display at Vanderbilt.

This show has been several years in the making. In 1995, Nashville art collector Walter Schatz approached Joseph Mella, curator of the Vandy Fine Arts Gallery, about organizing an Eichenberg exhibition. Mella traveled to the University of Rhode Island, where Schatz and Robert Conway, director of the Fritz Eichenberg trust, were surveying the artist's estate. The estate consisted of several thousand objects, including drawings, sketches, posters, advertisements, woodblock prints, even woodblocks themselves.

"The vast majority of the work is going to Yale University," Mella explains. "We saw a little window of opportunity to pull together from this incredible collection many works that have never been exhibited before." Of the 180 objects on display, a number of pieces also come from Schatz's own collection.

Eichenberg's images are scattered through our culture, on posters, in cartoons, and in countless book illustrations. Many viewers will be surprised to find that they have always known his drawings. Joseph Mella, for instance, knew Eichenberg's work through "the childhood experience of seeing [his] images on the cover of the Catholic Worker magazine. My parents subscribed to that because they met each other in New York in the early '30s, through the Catholic Worker, while working in the soup kitchens of the Bowery."

As a child, although I didn't know who Eichenberg was, I too grew up surrounded by his illustrations in such books as Black Beauty and The Jungle Book. "That's actually a very familiar experience," Conway explains. "People growing up, looking in their parents' libraries, know the images, but associate the image with the text and the characters, without thinking about who the illustrator was. I think Fritz was pleased by that kind of fame--anonymous fame, in a sense."

The otherwise excellent exhibit catalog misrepresents the show in one small way. On the cover is Eichenberg's 1980 print "Crucifixion," from his astonishing book Dance of Death. While an impressive monument to the Holocaust, the woodcut makes the exhibit seem more daunting than it is. Eichenberg had a powerful social conscience, one that was visible even in the books he illustrated--Gulliver's Travels, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina. But he was also a very playful artist. The exhibit does include some of the New Year's illustrations that Eichenberg sent to friends and family, and it also includes a love letter to his wife, in which he draws everything he wishes for her in the New Year--including the death of Hitler.

Life's work Fritz Eichenberg's "The Artist and the Seven Deadly Sins," one of 180 objects currently on display in the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery; the artist based the figure representing "Lust" upon one of his ex-girlfriends. Illustration courtesy of the Fritz Eichenberg Trust.
The exhibit, as its title indicates, follows the artist's life. One of the larger shows the gallery has mounted, it moves chronologically along the wall from the right of the entrance. The well-written captions, along with more informative brief essays, add up to a narrative in six sections. One of the prints, of Erasmus contemplating a jester hand puppet, contains a bust of the pagan god Terminus. Both these figures shared the same motto--"Concedo nulli," or "Don't compromise"--and it's clear from his work that Eichenberg himself identified with this credo.

Several of the illustrations are striking watercolors. One is a damning portrait of a Nazi priest. In another, Eichenberg placed his name on the label accompanying the painting; he also included the year of his birth and what turned out to be the accurate year of his death. Exhibit cases contain both small works and a number of Eichenberg's books, including the autobiographical The Wood and the Graver, as well as a classic work on printmaking. It's also a pleasure to find on display a number of Eichenberg's engraving tools, which he often portrayed in his work with a craftsman's affection.

At age 16, Eichenberg encountered the work of French social satirist Honoré Daumier, whose drawings would now be called editorial cartoons. To convey the important influence of this illustrator, who could be considered one of the consciences of the 19th century, the exhibit includes early cartoons by Eichenberg portraying such scenes as unemployed workers and bar habitués. After he fled Nazi Germany and settled in New York City, the artist portrayed similar scenes in his adopted hometown. In one memorable drawing, unemployed, Depression-battered men examine the exhibits as they huddle in a science museum.

A remarkable show, "Witness to Our Century" represents the latest in a series of engaging and diverse exhibitions at Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery. Three years ago, the space hosted a show of Italian Renaissance paintings, and earlier this year it mounted an impressive selection of works from the university's collection of Asian art. Other shows have included the work of Louise Bourgeois, Mimmo Paladino, and 17th-century Dutch genre artist Adriaen van Ostade.

After it closes, "Witness to Our Century" will journey to galleries in other cities. "It's pretty exciting for us," Mella says. "It's the first national traveling exhibit we've ever organized." The show begins its tour in 1998 at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art; from there, it goes to Virginia, New York, Georgia, and Chicago. The tour ends in 2001, with the centenary of the artist's birth.

Eichenberg liked to point out some interesting coincidences in his lifelong association with trees and wood. He was born on Linden Street in Cologne, and he lived in Grunewald ("Green Forest") in Berlin. In the U.S., he lived on Oakland Avenue in Crestwood, then moved to Oakwood Drive, in the Oaks, in Peace Dale. His very name meant "Oak Mountain."

"What better medium," he once asked, "than the inky surface of the woodblock, out of which the characters emerge as if spotlighted on a darkened stage, with the graver creating the magic source of illumination?"

"Witness to a Century" runs through Oct. 26 at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, located across from Blockbuster on West End. Hours are noon-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 1-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

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