It is hard to overestimate the usefulness of illustration as an element in the aesthetic education of the public. However high works of architecture, sculpture, and painting may tower above their more modest sister, the woodcut, they lack – apart from the fact that they are concentrated in a few large cities and thus grant deeper enjoyment to only a select number of appreciative art lovers – precisely that extraordinarily effective moment of appeal to the popular interest that makes illustrations so dear to all social classes in all places. If we may describe buildings, statues, and painting as a luxury for the refined artistic sensibility of a few, we are right to call illustration the daily bread of the artistic taste of the people. In fact, the most active servant of these more refined art forms is none other than illustration. It is through the Illustrirte Zeitung that thousands first learn of the existence of great artists and their works and thus come to know and appreciate them. Even though the woodcut may not be able to convey the imposing size and splendor of an edifice, the plastic beauty of a sculpture, the pictorial glory of a painting, it still offers the eye the essence, i.e., the thought expressed in the drawing, the pure content of the artistic idea freed from all the corrupting glory of external technique. Here, if one also adds portraits of the artists who created the works and explanatory text – interest in the illustration directs attention to the text, and the text directs just as much back to the illustration, thereby increasing the level of interest in and understanding of it – then the sum total of the sporadic impressions produced by original works of art cannot even begin to compare with the enormity of the inspiration that illustrated newspapers generate among millions from all social classes and in all places.
As an element in the aesthetic education of the public, however, illustration also aids in visualization of yet another sort. On the one hand, illustration turns works of art and the ideas that inform them into the common heritage of the nation; on the other hand, it also serves as the noblest interpreter of the contents of works of poetic art. It does so partly by illustrating their characters and plots in independent compositions, and partly through the agreeable symbolism of the arabesque ornamentation used in initials and decorative page-borders. Herein lies an influence that – because it shapes taste directly – may have an even greater impact on the aesthetic sensibility of the people. Moreover, no area of poetic activity remains closed to the livening up that illustration brings; it affects serious drama as much as naïve idyll, pathetic epic as much as clever song and humorous satire – they all present the woodcut with the richness of their treasures for use in the pleasure and education of the nation in general.
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Source: “Die Illustration als Hebel der Volksbildung” [“Illustrated Periodicals as a Means of Popular Education”], Illustrirte Zeitung [Illustrated Newspaper] 51, No.1305 (1868): pp. 3-4.
Original German text reprinted in Max Bucher, Werner Hal, Georg Jäger, and Reinhard Wittmann, eds., Realismus und Gründerzeit. Manifest und Dokument zur deutschen Literatur 1848-1880 [Realism and the Founding Era: Public Statements and Reports on German Literature 1848-1880], 2 vols., vol. 2, Manifeste und Dokumente [Public Statements and Reports]. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler: 1975, pp. 669-71.
Translation: Erwin Fink