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A Wood Engraver's Alphabet

by Gerard Brender à Brandis

64 pages, black & white illus.
Porcupine's Quill, Sep 2008
8.5 x 5.4 x 1 in.
ISBN: 0889843112
Softcover, $16.95

Any book by Canadian artist Gerard Brender à Brandis, the dean of floral wood engravings, is a welcome treasure. This new little offering is no exception. Following the pattern of previous releases, including A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare (May 2006) and An Artist's Garden (April 2001), also published by Porcupine's Quill, Brender à Brandis ties in a sequential or ordinal structure to exploring the forms and habits of his floral friends. Here, 26 prints of flowers both wild and tame are a wood-engraver's trip through both the garden and the alphabet. Each wood engraving reveals the species' own unique character in images whose delightful complexity rivals that of meadow and woodland.

"A" is for Adder's Tongue (Erythronium americanum), "B" for Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae), "C" for Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum x hybridum), and so on. They are patterns of bloom and leaf which might delight a William Morris, vital, flourishing outward and upward in wild tangles of growth. The beauty of wood engraving is accommodating its two opposites, black and white, to create impressions of depth, texture, even variations suggestive of tonality. Brender à Brandis is a master at such work, picking out petals, grasses and leaves in woodsy tangles. Nature's lavish complexity is captured cleanly by the artist's hand, every bloom and stem clearly portrayed, a garden's tumble of organic growth.

The range of depictions are as varied as they are in nature. In Chrysanthemum the large rich petals are rendered as white, suggesting a luminous quality to these favorite flowers. In Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) the artist employs a different approach, black outlining the blossoms, the upper background pared away and white, as if the tuft is seen from a low vantage point against the clearness of the sky. Brender à Brandis captures not merely the tangle of flower and leaf together, but the way they complement one another, the habit of the plant whether a towering spire or a simple flare, the nearby acorn that joins the trillium on the forest floor. To manage so much motion and natural tumult of form going on, while always retaining in clear focus the flowers of each featured specimen, is a feat akin to coordinating an orchestra on a three-by-five-inch wooden block.

A short preface by the artist discusses the genesis of the project, the source of a number of the blooms (many from his own garden), and a touch of description of his working method. In particular, it gives a hint as to the sureness required in creating each of these small images and the demands made on the skill of the carver. "At no point during the engraving can I replace any wood that I have removed," Brender à Brandis writes, "and an ill-considered or accidental stroke of the burin could ruin many hours of work." The demand for virtuosity and clear concept is absolute. Alterations, erasures and corrections are not permitted once the carving begins. At the same time many of these were sketched straight on the block in their initial conception.

Small prints are an intimate art. So is gardening, for that matter. Use of wood engraving for botanic illustration has a long and illustrious history. Well-known for his botanic works, it is no surprise that these prints by the artist are such treats. In A Wood Engraver's Alphabet a delightful pleasure waits.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: A Wood Engraver's Alphabet, as well as A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare and An Artist's Garden, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the links above.

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