Jacques Hnizdovsky was born in January 1915 in the Ukraine, and was educated in Europe. He emigrated to the United States in 1949 and became a naturalized citizen in 1954. Hnizdovsky died in New York in November 1985.
The woodcuts of Jacques Hnizdovsky represent some of the freshest and most original printmaking in American graphic arts of the second half of 20th century. Like Ben Shahn and Antonio Frasconi, he draws inspiration from the realist tradition of art, and like them he is an immigrant to our shores, a product of the mainstreams of European culture from which our nation has so felicitously drawn much of its creative talent.
Graphically, Hnizdovsky’s world encompasses a limited spectrum, essentially a natural history of animals and birds, wild and domestic, arrested and in repose, often observed at the zoo—cat, goose, sheep, tiger, zebra, black swan, stork, great horned owl, and an imperious bald eagle worthy of the national emblem. His plant life in the book Flora Exotica, published by Godine in 1972, is sharply observed with all the finesse of woodcuts of a medieval herbal, though his modern vision is more contained, stylized, and emblematic of a stronger linear fiber, and charged with solid areas of black. Many of these plants are printed in the book in monochrome somewhat against the artist’s tendency toward pure black and white, but lending variety and accent to the book form. One singles out the beautiful chrysanthemum, a brilliant efflorescence of sinuous coiling and recoiling petals the like not seen since the halcyon days of art nouveau. Hnizdovsky has illustrated two other books, Poems of John Keats (1964) and Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1967), both published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
As an extension of his plant specimens, Hnizdovsky has done several spacious landscapes, the most ambitious of which is Field, dated 1962. Here is a rural solitude with high horizons, distant trees and farm buildings, and a gently meandering foreground of parallel fields. The landscape is naturalistic, or “simplified realism,” but the subtlety and intimacy of Hnizdovsky’s calligraphy, with its myriad spiky strokes and repetitive hatchings, give point to the scattered diffusion of vegetation across the sheet.
Another facet of Hnizdovsky’s woodblock artistry is trees: Leafless Tree (1965), with twisted branches and weeping foliage like a Chinese landscape; Beech Tree (1971), penetrable thickets of intricate branches,- and Suicide Oak, New Orleans (1974), with the writhing root and branch formation of an undulating hydra.
Still life is another subject with which Hnizdovsky has dealt strikingly. His Apples in a Basket, a hand colored woodcut of 1971, artfully combines a basket-weave pattern with spherical fruit, household familiars perfectly suited to the strong harmonies of his style. We are reminded of his statement that “subject creates style; nature suggests style.” Hence it is a refreshment, in an age of endless striving and contriving to achieve originality through new-old forms, that there survives an artist who remains true to his vision, calmly perfecting the simple visual images of his craft.