Gustave Baumann lived and worked in New Mexico for more than fifty years, and his views of the West provided subjects for the majority of his prints and the basis of his enduring reputation as an American artist. The landscape of the West and the culture and art of its native people influenced and molded his style as a printmaker.
Before his arrival in New Mexico, Baumann was a professional graphic designer and printmaker, trained and practicing in the European tradition. His art education in Chicago and Germany was quite conventional, and he was little influenced by the newest avant-garde styles. Rather it was the customs and techniques of Old World craftsmanship, and the traditions of German folk art that moved him.
He left Chicago in 1910 to move to a quieter corner of the world, Brown County, Indiana. His early woodcuts generally were narrative vignettes in which he often incorporated typography. By the 1910s these prints began to lose their illustrative bookishness as characteristics of the Art and Crafts movement gradually appeared and Baumann's images became more picturesque than anecdotal.
It was during his years in Indiana that Baumann developed his personal seal - the image of a human hand opened over the heart, a gesture meant to imply a heartfelt pledge or the symbol of giving - an appropriate symbol for a devoted craftsman who found ultimate fulfillment in working with his hands.
Baumann first arrived in New Mexico in 1918, intending to spend the summer in Taos visiting his good friends Walter Ufer and Victor Higgins. Overwhelmed by the country's natural beauty, the artist frantically filled his sketchbooks. He found that nearly every village alleyway provided an engaging image, and he felt free to give personal interpretation to his landscapes. After several weeks working in Taos, Baumann made the arduous car trip south to explore Santa Fe. "I became painfully aware that the summer was drawing to a close," Baumann remembered. "I had investigated the mountain and desert and all the fascinating corners of Taos, but learned too late that a palette and theories regarding color east of the Mississippi should all be tossed in the river as you cross the bridge. My summer's work looked very sad indeed. I felt I wanted another try at this obstreperous material."
He decided to settle in Santa Fe permanently. After settling into his new home, Baumann worked to capture in his prints the spirit and atmosphere of New Mexico. He frequented the nearby Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains west of Santa Fe, drawn by its magnificent natural beauty and fascinating archaeological sites. Baumann returned to the Frijoles Canyon over the years and interpreted their mysteries in many of his prints.
The artist selected landscapes that were unmistakably southwestern and used peculiar points of view to emphasize their vast scale. He employed a favorite device of dramatic shifts of light and color to enhance a sense of space, yet his palette remained fairly dim. Its softness even gives the sensation of blurred color that one experiences in the blinding bright sunshine, when the pupils close down tightly.
It was during this time in the Spring of 1919 that Baumann also made his first prints of the Indian pictographs at Frijoles Canyon - a theme that would continue throughout his career. The artist was stirred by their economy and emotional impact and discovered in their formal vocabulary a strong parallel with modern art. In the same year, Baumann made his first visit to the Grand Canyon. He was awestruck by its scale, its dramatic effects of atmosphere and light, and by its preternatural color. In the months following his return to Santa Fe, he made five vivid color woodcuts that reflect the impact of this experience.
In 1924, Baumann visited Arizona. In the arid brilliance of the Sonoran desert he found a distinctive ambience that he later captured in four woodcuts. Two of these focus on specific desert plants. In addition to an accurate representation of these common, exotic-looking plants, he strove to depict their austere native environment, using intense hues and exploiting paper color to suggest the sandy desert soil reflecting the sun's unremitting heat.
The following year, Baumann traveled to California. The woodcuts resulting from this trip suggest that he explored the Pacific Coast from Laguna Beach north to San Francisco Bay. To capture the sensations of bright light, silvery ocean reflections, and cool coastal breezes, the artist used a soft palette of pale colors. With these colors he often employed black to strengthen shadows and emphasize rugged, curvilinear forms.
The decade of the 1920s was a golden era for Gustave Baumann's color prints. He worked steadily with great commitment, producing as many as sixty color woodcuts during this period. This work sustained his reputation nationally. Baumann's prints of this period ranged widely in their imagery but generally were bright, boldly designed and recognizably western.
Baumann's prints of the 1920s were acquired by serious collectors and museums, but the foundation of his renown and financial success was in sales to middle-class customers who purchased one or two color prints to decorate the walls of their homes. This was an era of widespread and enduring popularity for the Arts and Crafts style in home furnishings.
The exceptional size and range of Baumann's woodcut production resulted from his working at printmaking as a full-time job. He was in the studio first thing almost every morning and he often worked late into the night. He undertook every stage of the process himself, never employing students or assistants in his studio. Generally the artist pulled a maximum of 125 impressions of each print, but he never produced an entire edition at once. He made woodcuts according to demand, producing impressions as they were needed for sale or exhibition. During printing he continuously tried to improve the look of his prints by adjusting colors, and even altered his designs by re-cutting, adding, or subtracting blocks within an edition.
After the 1930s it seems that Baumann no longer mounted ambitious sketching expeditions to gather new material. Although his prints reflect further travels in the West, through New Mexico and to Colorado, Texas and California, these landscapes tend to be the exception to the work of this period. Review of the dated prints suggests that generally he stayed closer to home, often reprinting from his repertoire of earlier blocks. Several of the prints from this period include florals and cozy domestic interiors reflective of Baumann's happy home-life with his wife and daughter.
During the last thirty years of his life, he averaged about one new print a year. During the 1960s, Baumann dabbled with abstraction in his prints. He had always maintained a good-natured respect for nonobjective art and his understanding of abstraction deepened with interest in Native American and children's art. Nevertheless, he found it nearly impossible to free his work of references to concrete visual experience. He made a handful of exploratory prints, such as Torrey Pine (1961) and Hidden Meaning (1962), but these efforts were diversions. He never seriously confronted the challenges and possibilities of abstract woodcuts.Baumann's prints always remained proudly oriented to craft.
The great achievement of his career was that he was able to delight people by the melding of his craftsman's skill with the sustained inspiration he drew from the beauty of nature and the venerable traditions of Native Americans, which he discovered and nourished in the American West during the years of his artistic maturity. Beyond the inarguable allure of his images and his obvious skill in rendering them, Baumann captured the quiet contemplation of solitude that increasingly came to characterize his life. It is this sensation that reverberates in his art. Most of Baumann's prints succeed in sharing with the viewer something of the comfortable contentment of the artist's own personality.