This artwork titled The Story of Jonah is from artist Fritz Eichenberg's portfolio Ten Wood Engravings for the Old Testament.

CNS PHOTO | COURTESY JUDNT ART MUSEUM

This artwork titled The Story of Jonah is from artist Fritz Eichenberg's portfolio Ten Wood Engravings for the Old Testament.

April 25, 2011
DENNIS SADOWSKI
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Climbing to the roof of his home in Cologne, Germany, during the final days of the First World War, a teenage Fritz Eichenberg would pick up pieces of shrapnel, souvenirs of night bombing raids that terrorized civilians.

Born in 1901 to a Jewish family, Eichenberg saw the widespread destruction caused by war and wondered what good was coming of it. It was then that lifelong anti-war sentiments took root.

After starting his career as an advertising artist, Eichenberg went on to become a well-known engraver and illustrator whose work often examined the struggles of everyday life, social justice concerns and stories from the Bible.

ACERBIC COMMENTARY

His intricate woodcuts span a wide range of topics. From depicting Christ in contemporary settings with the suffering poor to offering acerbic social commentary on political leaders prone to violence and repression continue to inspire viewers more than two decades after his 1989 death.

A selection of Eichenberg's work is on display in the Arcade Gallery at the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., through July 30.

The exhibit showcases 25 images from the museum's collection of 750 prints and other works donated by longtime benefactors Norman and Esther Bolker.

The display includes prints from Eichenberg's book In Praise of Folly, based on Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus' satire on human folly written in 1511. Erasmus' book by the same name was a social commentary on the vanity of humankind, the foolishness of the aristocratic class, and the corruption of governing Church hierarchy, messages which Eichenberg found relevant and stinging 400 years later.

Other prints on display are taken from Eichenberg's portfolio Ten Wood Engravings for the Old Testament and include pieces such as the well-known The Peaceable Kingdom, And David Played the Harp and The Story of Jonah.

Karen Kaiser, the museum's assistant curator for education, said Eichenberg's work continues to inspire viewers more than two decades after his death.

"From what I understand he had a commitment to social justice. He had those kinds of high principles even in young adulthood," Kaiser said. "His fearlessness is what stands out."

Eichenberg's work was the focus of doctoral dissertation by Father James Daprile, of Aurora, Ohio, who catalogued his work that appeared in The Catholic Worker newspaper.

"One of Eichenberg's beliefs was an artist is on the witness stand, the artist had to have a conscience," Daprile said.

Eichenberg's desire to become what he described as "an artist with a message" and to use caricature to explore the human condition evolved after the First World War.

After studying art in Cologne and Leipzig, also in Germany, he began his career as an illustrator of books and newspapers in Berlin in 1923 during the Weimar era. Politics was Eichenberg's primary focus and his satire mocked the political and military elite of the time.

In 1933 - by then married and with a two-year-old daughter - Eichenberg took the opportunity to visit Mexico and Guatemala. He recalled in a 1970 oral history interview with the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution that he eventually made his way northward to San Antonio and then New York, where he quickly made friends in the artist community.

Returning to Berlin, Eichenberg recognized the growing danger the rise of Nazism posed to Jews and he decided to move his family to New York, leaving a particularly comfortable life behind despite the worldwide Depression.

His talent quickly assured employment illustrating books and a variety of publications. He later was part of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project and began teaching at art schools, including the renowned Pratt Institute.

SPIRITUAL SOLACE

The unexpected death of Eichenberg's first wife in 1937 sent him into a deep depression. He found consolation first by practising Zen Buddhism and then converting to Quakerism, which offered a spirit of simplicity and stillness that he found attractive.

In 1949, he met Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who invited him to contribute illustrations to The Catholic Worker newspaper she published. Day felt he provided an emotional element to his work that could communicate the Catholic Worker spirit to people who could not read. Indeed, Kaiser said, "the people who responded to him were the real workers."

At the height of Eichenberg's popularity in the mid-20 th century his iconic images often could be found in the homes of illiterate workers and hardworking, low-wage labourers who could begin to understand Bible stories in a very personal way, she said.

"Many people called his work illustration," said Daprile. "He preferred to say his work was illumination, bringing information to light. He felt every cut in the wood was an act of Genesis, bringing light to the world."

MANY VENUES

It's not just the spiritual that Eichenberg approached. His intricate wood engravings also can be found illustrating books by Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Russian authors Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, and the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

But perhaps he is most well-known for his images rooted in the Bible. But it is his images of biblical characters as well as his depictions of Christ as a friend of the poor - standing in a food line with the hungry or huddling with the homeless on the street - that are among his most enduring today.

"He was the cultural critic," the Jundt Art Museum's Kaiser said. "He was always including himself in the cultural criticism. What he talks about is so universal. He just knew what he was what he was doing was important and that it was right."

More information about Bolker Collection: Fritz Eichenberg can be found online at www.gonzaga.edu/Campus-Resources/Museums-and-Libraries/Jundt-Art-Museum/arcade.asp.