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Erich Heckel. Die Ballade zum Zuchthaus zu Reading. New York : Ernest Rathenau, 1963

“The only work complete with text and plates with which Erich Heckel enriched the field of literary illustration was, however, executed much earlier, in the year 1907. This was the woodcut title and eleven woodcut plates to Oscar Wilde’s Ballade vom Zuchthaus zu Reading (Ballad of Reading Gaol). These plates are the incunabulae of Expressionist woodcut illustration; they stand at the very threshold of Expressionist book illustration. No Expressionist illustration dating from before Heckel’s woodcuts is known. However, the woodcuts were not published in book form with Wilde’s text during the Expressionist period. Heckel did, of course, expect them to be published, but he himself never offered them to a publisher. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff showed them to Harry Graf Kessler, but Kessler declined to publish them. So the blocks lay unused until 1944, when they were destroyed in an air-raid on Berlin. It is both tragic and curious that these, of all the woodcuts, were first published in the last Expressionist illustrated book. This was issued in an edition limited to six hundred numbered copies in New York in 1963 by Ernest Rathenau (formerly of the Euphorion Verlag, Berlin) as a mark of homage to the artist and in memory of the age of German Expressionism (...) The underlying note struck by the woodcuts is that of fear. Fear appears in many guises: in the terrifying emptiness that surrounds the prisoner, in his horrified fantasies of death, in pressive dream-images that visit him by day and night, until at last the end brings appeasement and fear is transfigured by the crucified Christ: the prisoner is comforted and his agony and martyrdom are over. Thus Heckel’s images illustrate the emotions and moods and the oppressive tone of the ballad, and all incidentals are omitted. The language of these woddcuts is impressive. We may assume that Heckel was influenced by Edvard Munch; certainly his inspiration is apparent in some of the plates.”

Lothar Lang. Expressionist book illustration in Germany, 1907-1927. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976 (p. 36)

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