Gustave Baumann in Santa Fe
By Sara Evans
The first time I visited Santa Fe, I fell head over heels in love with an artist I’d never heard of: Gustave Baumann. Like most people, I associated the Southwest with the intense colors and bleached skulls of Georgia O’Keeffe. Yet here was a radically different sensibility. Baumann’s woodcuts are of such astonishing delicacy and refinement that at first glance they appear to be watercolors. Adobe buildings and billowing clouds, native people in sun-drenched plains, an infinity of trees, lilacs in bloom, shimmering aspens, gardens filled with hollyhocks, skies swollen with clouds. All of this he captured in his color woodcuts, reviving a distinctive and demanding art form.
Baumann was born in 1881, in the ancient city of Magdeburg, in the very heart of Germany. His family emigrated to Chicago when he was ten. As a young man, he studied graphic arts, and began experimenting with woodcuts and apprenticed as an engraver, saving enough money to return to Germany in 1904. This time he went to Munich to study art.
At the turn of the century, all things Japanese were the rage. Americans and Europeans were fascinated by the intricate tradition of Japanese woodcuts as exemplified by Hiroshige with his sweeping vistas of the mountains and the sea. Baumann threw himself into the form, working for the most part in linoleum, which was cheaper and easier to cut. He also traveled throughout Germany, studying the folk artists and craftsmen who carved toy villages, furniture, clocks, churches and Christmas decorations by hand. Baumann’s work from this period is somewhat dark and static, and has a distinctly nineteenth century feel to it, in contrast to the lush color palette that characterizes his later work.
Returning to America after a few years, Baumann lived in New York, New England, and the Midwest, finally tossing up in Santa Fe in 1918. There, he was dazzled by the landscape. Take a look at “Honda” (our featured image above). At first glance, it could be a view of the distant hills in Denmark, Austria, or Bavaria. Yet it beautifully illustrates Baumann’s early encounter with the Southwest, an ancient place viewed through a European lens. His other woodcuts show the character of the people and their daily life on the sun drenched mesas. Here’s a sample of his work from In a Modern Rendering: The Woodcuts of Gustave Baumann, a lavish new book from Rizzoli Electa.
Bringing European Crafts to the Southwest
Santa Fe was quite the art and literary scene when Baumann first arrived. He befriended the transplanted New York heiress, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and her friends, the novelist D.H. Lawrence and his chain-smoking wife Frieda who swore like a sailor, along with the retiring British artist, Dorothy Brett. In 1923, Baumann built a simple adobe home where he later lived with his wife Jane and daughter Ann. In the 1930’s, he made a miniature theater, complete with over 70 carved marionettes, to amuse his daughter and her friends. This project harkened back to the German tradition of toy-making he learned in his travels.
To Santa Fe, he also brought with him a German love for festivals and for public ritual. With his friend, the painter William Howard Shuster, he created one of town’s oldest traditions — the Zozobra, a 50 foot tall marionette that is burned during the annual Fiesta. In Spanish, the word Zozobra means anxiety but the figure came to be known as “Old Man Gloom.” Every autumn, the people of Santa Fe write down their worries and troubles on a slip of paper. These are incorporated into the body of the marionette which is then set on fire in the public square. Baumann not only made art in Santa Fe, he contributed to its mythology and folklore.
When he established his own print shop in Santa Fe, Baumann wrote this tongue-in-cheek description of his work: “Draw directly on the block whatever you want, cut away whatever you don’t want, and print the rest.” But this craft was far from simple. Throughout his long and successful career, Baumann was a tireless experimenter, tinkering with imported papers and inks, with various methods of laying wood on paper, always adhering to a vision vast in scope yet lyrical in its execution.
Woodcuts fall into the category of printmaking—and as such, are made in multiples. One intriguing aspect of Baumann’s work is the fact that we can view multiple versions of a specific image—and marvel at their broad and subtle differences. While part of an edition, each one stands as its own unique work of art.
A New Appreciation of Baumann's Work
Though Baumann has been unfairly pigeonholed as a regionalist, his work has at last received his due in the superb Catalogue Raisonné published in 2019 by Rizzoli Electa, mentioned above. “In a Modern Rendering: The Color Woodcuts of Gustave Baumann,” by Gala Chamberlain, is a glorious piece of bookmaking with scholarly essays that throw light on the artist’s life and long years of productivity.
Chamberlain was first introduced to Baumann’s color woodcuts in 1976 while she was working at The Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, California. That year Ann Baumann asked the gallery to represent her father’s work. “It was easy to respond to and fall in love with Baumann’s imagery and colors,” Chamberlain writes. “And his woodcuts were selling at a steady pace.” Worried that she might miss out, she selected one colorful image that she felt represented all the wonderful qualities of Baumann’s art. “Morning Sun,” now hangs in her dining room.
The book represents a labor of love and some solid detective work. Chamberlain had to track down prints from private collections and museums, a process that took over thirty years.
“I will miss the chase, the discoveries,” Chamberlain says, “and the intensity of the research, and I will always be thankful to Ann Baumann for providing the opportunity and the funding to bring this dream of a book to fruition.”
Baumann took many photographs of the Southwest, and these are included along with archival images of his family and friends. But the book’s real glory are the woodcuts that capture Baumann’s love affair with Santa Fe until his death in 1971. These 1100 color illustrations are a record of his long and fruitful career (over 50 years) and include prints done while he was area head of the Public Works of Art Project for the WPA in the 1930s.
Over the years, Baumann explored the Southwest and the California coast, watching how the winds blew and the clouds formed and the leaves tossed. But Santa Fe was the place he always returned to, and the landscape he loved best. Some artists never put down roots. But Baumann, with his European sensibility and his immigrant’s vision, was one of the lucky ones. He was a man who found the right home for his spirit and his art.
Sara Evans has written about travel, child development, gardening, antiques and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living. She co-authored A Shared Aesthetic: Artists of Long Island’s North Fork.