Niccola Shearman - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Niccola Shearman

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Niccola Shearman

PhD student; Associate Lecturer

Thesis: Weimar in Black and White: the German woodcut, 1918-1928

Supervised by Shulamith Behr


Short-term research grants received from:

  • DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), 2013.
  • Houghton Library, Harvard University, 2013.

In the immediate aftermath of WW1, German artists and critics clamoured to promote the art of the woodcut as the emblem of an embattled culture. Representing both the revival of a medieval craft and a plain-speaking modernist aesthetic, for many this uncompromising medium embodied the prevailing Zeitgeist; the bold contrasts and raw edges seemingly reflecting a black-and-white world of utopia and despair.

With a focus on the divergent styles of two artists, this thesis will contribute to a growing body of woodcut scholarship, tracing developments during the era between Utopian Expressionism and Bauhaus Modernism. Taking up the woodcut with a ‘furious’ energy in 1918, Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) employed a vigorous line and a pantheistic piety reminiscent of early German wood carving. Also working ‘like a fanatic’, German-American artist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) embarked on a project of visual problem-solving. With opportunities to examine many of the original woodblocks alongside their prints and preliminary drawings in Germany and the USA, original research considers the material conditions of objects which habitually lie hidden between the stages of design and printing.

Taking issue with an enduring Expressionist rhetoric of chaos, this project seeks an alternative method of interpreting an art form reduced to bare essentials. In an attempt to keep the ‘big picture’ of a totalising  Geistesgeschichte at arm’s length, it conducts a close-up view of the formal characteristics of the artworks in relation to patterns of visual perception. Comparing features of reductive form, rhythm and material resistance to insights from the Gestalt school emerging at the same time in Berlin, it explores in particular the embodied conditions of the art form and its reception in line with psychologist Rudolf Arnheim’s principles of ‘undiluted vision’. Considering key aspects of structural economy and black-and-white contrast, it proposes an argument for the workings of a Zeitauge or ‘period eye’ as an alternative to the Zeitgeist.   As Lyonel Feininger wrote in 1917, ‘Form and Rhythm underlie everything in the world. Even chaos is full of order’.



  • 2009:   PhD candidate, Courtauld Institute of Art (part-time)
  • 2007:   MA in the History of Art (German art 1890-1945), Courtauld Institute.
  • 1988:   PGCE in German and French, London University Institute of Education.
  • 1986:   BA Hons in Modern Languages (2:1), Oxford University.


  • 2012-14: Teaching assistant, Courtauld Institute; MA Methodology; BA2 Object Positions.
  • 2014: Visiting lecturer, BA1 Topic Course; Graphic Expressions – German and Austrian works on paper, 1880-1933.
  • 2015: Lecturer, Showcasing Art History (Courtauld) – Modernisms in Europe and the USA
  • 2012 – (ongoing) Lecturer and Gallery educator, Courtauld Gallery Public Programmes and Oak Foundation Programme for Young People

Research interests

  • German art and its reception during the Weimar Republic.
  • Histories of printmaking and literary illustration.
  • Psychology of Vision (19th C. German ‘psychological aesthetics’, phenomenology, and Gestalt principles to present day)

Conference papers and lectures

  • April 2015: ‘Altered Visions: on visible relief in the German woodcut post-WW1’ at AAH conference, UEA.
  • July 2014: ‘Reversal of Values – the woodblock and its print in Weimar Germany’, Spur der Arbeit conference, Technische U. Berlin
  • November 2012:’The “Gothic Spirit” and the German Expressionst woodcut’, Revivals conference, Courtauld Institute.
  • June 2012: ‘Seeing is Everything: on visual order in the woodcuts of Lyonel Feininger’, UCL postgraduate conference, London.

Recent publication

  • ‘Seeing is Everything: on the visual demands of Lyonel Feininger’s woodcuts’, immediations, the Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research, vol. 3 no. 3, 2014.
  • Book Chapter: ‘Chasing Linear Fantasies: a study of the Gothic line in the work of Ernst Barlach’, in A. Lepine & L. Cleaver (eds) Gothic Legacies: Four Centuries of Tradition and Innovation in Art and Architecture (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012)
  • Publications for Courtauld Gallery Public Programmes (2012-14) – essay contributor and translator for Teachers’ Resources: Mantegna – Matisse, Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery; Journeys in Art and Ambition -Albrecht Duerer (editor); Egon Schiele and the Expressive Body.
  • ‘Putting the Passion into cultural politics: Utopian hopes for a new religious art in Germany, 1915-20’, Rebus (online journal of art history and theory, U. Essex, issue 3, 2009)

Other academic activity

  • Member of CHASE Material Witness training programme 2015
  • Contributor to Courtauld Prints and Drawings Showcase week, 2014.

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