The Twist of Rist: Lasting Impressions by Luigi Rist
A selection of prints from the Gregory B. Maynard Collection
Curated by RaVae Luckhart
May 23 – August 21, 2015
Reception: June 19, 5:00–8:00 p.m.
Louis G. Rist (American, 1888–1959) was an unusually talented woodblock printmaker of some renown in the early- and mid-20th century. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Rist was interested in art from a young age and received his formal training as a painter at the Grand Central School of Art in New York. While there, Rist met Sigurd Skou (Norwegian, 1875–1929) and Theodore Braithwaite (American, n.d.) both of whom remained lifelong friends and were instrumental in his development. In 1929, Rist accompanied Skou to Concarneau, an artist’s colony in Brittany, where he assumed the Italian name “Luigi”—which he felt was much more artistic than “Louis.” The French pronounced Louis as Louie, and, by adding his middle initial resulted in “Louie G,” or “Luigi,” a linguistic joke that delighted Rist. However, the extraordinary prints that brought Luigi fame are not Italianesque, but instead reflect a distinctly Japanese aesthetic.
Indeed, it was in 1929—the same year Rist took the name Luigi—that the Philadelphia-based painter, Morris Blackburn (American, 1902–1979) introduced Rist to the art of Japanese woodblock printing at an exhibition at Comerford Gallery. Rist was smitten with these prints, but he had no access to anyone who practiced the art. Instead, it is said he learned his technique through experimentation and from studying Hiroshi Yoshida’s Japanese Woodblock Printing (The Sanseido Company, 1939). Rist’s first three prints date from the early 1930s and show him struggling to master the art (one of which is Zinnias, exhibition no. 3). Throughout the 1940s and 50s one can trace Rist’s increasing fluidity with the art. It was during this period that Braithwaite placed many of Rist’s works in the Christian Science Monitor. And, in fact, until his death in 1959, Rist’s life was consumed with a visual aesthetic expressed in the way of the Japanese, creating forty editions of prints—his life work.
It is hard to overstate the scope of Rist’s accomplishment. Japanese printmaking methods are slow, meticulous, methodical, and technically demanding, requiring hundreds of hours to produce a single print. Traditionally, Japanese woodblock prints were produced in large workshops with several craftsmen collaborating in the production: one Japanese artist made the drawings; another carved the blocks; while a third did the printing. Craftsmen apprenticed for years to learn their art. However, Rist amazed Japanese artists by doing all of the work himself, from initial preparatory drawings to finished print, all without any formal training. The consequence was that Rist produced at most two prints a year. Limited production and limited demand generated a modest income at best. Fortunately for his art production, in 1937, he married Ida Marie Weber who supported the family, sometimes with two jobs, enabling Rist to concentrate on his woodcuts.
After completing numerous preparatory sketches, Rist transferred the final drawing to a cherry wood block. With a small, sharp knife, he cut along both sides of the drawn lines. Then, using a mallet and chisels, he removed all areas not intended to print, leaving the line drawing “type-high”—meaning the height of the printing surface which received the ink. This first block was known as the “key block” and was used to transfer the drawing to each of the many blocks used to produce the final image. In the Eastern tradition, the key block is not printed but is used only for registration. However in the Western tradition, the key block is frequently printed last so the black lines are overlaid on the image. For most of his printing career, Rist followed the Eastern tradition, however, in his later years he began to mix both Eastern and Western traditions and we see the graphic lines of the key block surface in his work (a great example of this can be seen in Picnic Table (1959, exhibition no. 7).
Rist carved seven to twenty-five blocks to produce a single print, each designed to print one or more colors and keyed to the other blocks with hairline precision. He generally carved both sides of the blocks, allowing him to generate two printing surfaces from each block. Not only did he carve many blocks, but sometimes a single block was printed over and over again to achieve his desired color gradation. Thus, in some cases, fifty impressions were required to complete a single print. To make the print, he applied water-based color combined with rice paste onto the raised areas of a block. He then laid a single sheet of mulberry paper over the inked block, and then transferred the ink to the paper by rubbing the back of the paper with a baren. After the ink dried, he would repeat the process with the next block. This overprinting technique was possible because the ink was water-based, and thus soaked into the absorbent mulberry paper. Had he used oil-based inks, the accumulation of ink would have resulted in a distracting, shiny surface.
Traditionally, the Japanese used mulberry paper for printing woodblock prints. Rist preferred to use a type of mulberry paper known as hoshu paper. However, it was scarce and difficult to obtain during WWII, and while it was his intention to produce editions of 150 matching prints, he often had too little paper to complete an edition. As a result, Rist did not strike out his blocks after a print run, allowing him to return to a set of blocks to print another run. According to the Dialogue, the Quarterly Newsletter of the Demuth Museum (December 2009), only A Garden Opal (1943, exhibition no. 13) and Sprouts (1950, exhibition no. 19) reached their full edition during his lifetime. Records of edition size are unclear, for he returned to partially printed editions many times, and unfortunately the records are incomplete. Complicating matters further, his wife, Ida, signed his name to many of Rist’s prints after his death, their signatures being indistinguishable.
In The Prints of Luigi Rist, Reba and Dave Williams write:
The subject and style of Rist’s prints are virtually unique for the period in which he worked, but his use of color frequently coincided with a similar interest of several other artists. Until the 1930s, most American printmakers held firmly to black and white printmaking, but in 1939 a small group of Philadelphia-based artists formed the American Color Print Society (ACPS). . . Rist was introduced to the ACPS by Morris Blackburn and in 1941, at the Society’s second exhibition, where Rist won the first prize for Sunflowers [1940, exhibition no. 24]. By 1941, Rist was completely captivated by the medium. On February 11, 1941 he wrote to Blackburn: “This damned printmaking has become of very absorbing interest to me. It’s a lot of work, hard and uncertain, and when I start printing, I’m off as tho on a journey—a batch of work 40 or 50 prints takes a good solid week to complete. I get all keyed up—more so than I was when painting and while I’m working I can think and imagine and plan my future block. I wonder if it is all worth while. It means if I stick to this kind of block printing (and I personally think I should) that it will take all of my time.” Fortunately, Rist did stick to block printing, making one glorious print after another.
The inspiration for Magnolia Grandiflora (1945, exhibition no. 9) came from a professional photograph taken by a friend. As was his custom, Rist researched it further at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, copying the description in a botanical guide, and producing several drawings before transferring the image to the block. The delicate, creamy whites are handled exceptionally well in this print, which was used for the cover for the Sunday supplement of the Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 2, 1946.
The painter/printmaker and lecturer, Barbara Whipple (American 1921–1989) shares that preliminary drawings of Dandelions were made in 1945. However, the initial run of thirty-five prints was not made until 1947 (exhibition no. 2). She speculates that the publication of the print in the Christian Science Monitor increased the demand so that he was compelled to make another run. He could only handle sixty sheets of paper at a time; this print required forty-four impressions to complete. Proofs exist from several blocks showing portions cut out where Rist could pass color tests beneath the cut out area to test the effectiveness of the hue. “Painstaking deliberation was the hallmark of his art,” comments Whipple.
Whipple relates that Luigi and Ida bought a farm in Vermont where they spent weekends between 1950 and 1956, during which time he created only one print per year, probably because of the demands of the farm. In fact, he only created one print per year for the last nine years of his life. In 1956, they moved to southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1959.
Morris Blackburn characterized Rist’s position in the artworld of the Eastern Seaboard, stating: “Luigi was ‘with it’, but not ‘in’ the print world . . . a ‘sport’ on the rim. People would say ‘technically marvelous, but I don’t like his subject matter—why do a bunch of radishes?’ Color prints used to be frowned on as déclassé—and then there was the social consciousness art of the ‘30’s. He never TALKED about doing his own thing—he just did it.”
Perhaps we can see Rist responding to such criticisms in the following artist’s statement (1955): “My use of vegetable and flower subject is deliberate, as the shapes and forms are basic and varied, and lend themselves to unlimited arrangements, textures, forms, color and abstraction. Also my prints are limited as to size, hence these forms appear on the prints in actual size, which gives them added importance visually and pictorially.”
Rist accumulated numerous significant awards for his woodcuts. His prints are included in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Newark Museum, the New York Public Library, the Princeton Print Club, the Montclair Art Museum, the New Jersey State Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American Art, the Butler Institute of Art, Elizabethtown College, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This essay is based on material gathered from the following sources: The Prints of Luigi Rist by Reba and Dave Williams; “The Work of Luigi Rist,” an unpublished essay by Barbara Whipple; Dialogue, the quarterly newsletter of the Demuth Museum; and numerous unpublished letters by Luigi Rist and his wife, Ida Marie Weber.
The prints in this exhibition were generously loaned to the San Juan Islands Museum of Art by Gregory B. Maynard of San Juan Island. Luigi and Ida Rist were personal friends of Greg’s family in Vermont and as a result of this relationship, the Gregory B. Maynard Collection of Woodcuts by Luigi Rist has grown to what it is today.