Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Josephine Siccard Redl (1878 - 1938): Istria

If any artist could be a perfect fit for this blog, the Austrian artist Josephine Siccard Redl may well be the one. I say Austrian but she was born in Prague and almost certainly spent only part of her adult life in Vienna. Siccards had been artists there as far back as the late C18th and she herself became a fairly standard colour woodcut artist. Then I take it she moved south to the coast of Istria. And I think it was Istria made her into a mature and quite exceptional printmaker.

The peninsula lies at the head of the Adriactic. When she was born, it was part of Austria- Hungary, with a population of Slovenes and Croations and people on the western coast who spoke a Romance language that is a cousin of modern Italian. This led to the province being given to Italy in 1919. The artist was certainly there some time after that. The first image is inscribed: 'Harbour of Laurana, Italy'. You can see the village marked on the map, across the gulf opposite Fiume. I have to assume she was living there, or in the area, because many of these prints have local connections, but I cannot be sure of this.

The boats are trabacole. They are Venetian luggers, with two masts and triangular, or lug, sails. You will see how well she handles the complex arrangement of masts and sails, rigging and bulwarks. Here is someone with a love of the sea and boats. It is her use of rich brown and gold that marks out this mature work. The boats also have the sturdy treatment of Carl Thiemann with subtle and striking rhythms across the picture plane.

This chapel by the sea is also near Laurana. I specially like the worn uneveness of the path and the shadow. The clarity of the light helps to explain why she went to Istria.

I couldn't be 100% sure that these are Istrian country women but they are drawn with such sympathy, I had to include them. Some Austrian artists at the time went in for images of country people and it's a shame we don't have more figure subjects by her. I like the way she insists on their privacy.

There is nothing shy about these daffodills. I suppose they were a subject she had to tackle at some point. They are stylised but unlike her contemporary English wood-engravers, she knows where to stop. What matters is the subject; the manner of representation is always subordinate. The broad brushwork on the gleaming Chinese jar is in vivid contrast to the jostling daffodills. She is the most painterly of all the colour woodcutters, even more than Thiemann.

One certain fact we have about her is that having come to Italy, she then left for Argentina, where she died at Rosario just north-west of Buenos Aires in 1938. We can only guess at the reasons. In 1922 Mussolini led the blackshirts on the march on Rome and by 1927 there was enforced Italianization of the population of Istria - no education in their own language, for instance.

This next ship is a nao. To be exact it's the 'Santa Maria' that carried Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Whether or not she made these prints in advance of the journey to Argentina or afterwards, I can't say, but I would say before. When I first saw them, I thought at first she had joined the ranks of the galleon artists - they were popular images during the 1920s and 1930s in Britain. But it shows real imagination to turn her attention to historic ships when she is going on a similar journey herself. This isn't the usual historical pastiche. The boat is lively and buoyant

I have to say 'Bon voyage' untill the next post with this last image of Columbus' three ships sailing off into a very Siccard Redl sunset. The 'Santa Maria', which Columbus had never been happy about, was to run aground in the shallows off Hispaniola where he abandonned it. I think you will agree that Josephine Siccard Redl also told a true if poetic story and kept afloat.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Walther Klemm: a book of birds

Anyone who has read a dozen or so posts on the blog will have realised I have a soft spot for central European printmakers working between about 1900 and 1930. This interest began quite casually with picking up prints in salerooms, junk shops or on the Portobello Road in London during the 1980s. Carl Thiemann, Helene Mass, Englebert Lap, Paul Leschhorn, the Frank brothers, Bresslern Roth - all of them were there. You might not have been able to read their signatures, but they were always stylish and sometimes dirt-cheap. And if you had to pay, they smacked of sophistication from beyond the river Rhine. As I said in the October post, a good Walther Klemm (1883 - 1957) was hard to find.

In 1912 he published his 'Vogelbuch' a portfolio of six colour woodcuts of European birds in an edition of only 40. He had already made a book of Prague street scenes but his bird prints owe far more to the example of the Japanese. Look at the work of his contemporary, Ohara Koson (1877 - 1945). Koson, only six years his senior, had generally stopped making woodcuts under that name in 1911. Many were of birds and were widely sold in Europe. The eagle (also picked up for next to nothing) isn't really typical but you see the form: concentration on a single image, a neutral background with few details, an unsentimental approach. This one would appeal more to the ornithologist than most. I don't think Klemm's would.
Klemm wasn't a naturalist. They are birds but he was also concerned with line, form and their relationship to space. The Japanese example that he had learned through Emil Orlik, suited him very well. If he knew Koson's work - and I would think that he did - it is even more interesting. For all that, these are European prints. Koson's line is much sharper than Klemm's. The rhythms and inwardness of Klemm - look at the way he describes the feel of the feathers and the atmosphere the birds live in - are really quite foreign to the Japanese artist. By comparison, Koson is almost shockingly objective.

Klemm uses the long Japanese image to suggest the kingfisher about to dive, the ducks doing so, but the sense of violent drama in Koson's eagle print in missing.

AW Seaby is also famous for his birds. But Seaby was a naturalist and his work still appeals to ornithologists. Ten years older than Koson, there is no sense of influence here. Klemm looks alot more Japanese. Seaby's work is a portrait of a bird in its environment. This is very British. He also avoids the neutrals of both Koson and Klemm. He talked about 'the tendency of our time to enjoy colour'. He also made this print in green and the blue strikes me pretty arbitrary. Klemm thought harder about what the Japanese were actually doing and was basically more abstract in the appproach he took to his work.

I wanted to include Klemm's complete set so people could see them all together. I think this ptarmigan is undergoing psychoanalysis. There is more of a sense of the instincts in Klemm than there is in Seaby.

The play of feathers in the game bird is beautifully Klemm, vivid and a bit bizarre. He likes the way wings stretch out for us to see. It's unexpected. I always think there is a bit more to Klemm than meets the eye. I don't think you would ever say that about Seaby.

I had to finish with the more usual kind of Koson. The frailty of the blossom and the crow's terrible beak and eye are masterly. His sense that something is about to happen, of vigour, and of the fleeting moment, is beyond most European artists. (I should also add that Joseph Fach in Frankfurt-am-Main currently have 'Vogelbuch' for sale. My thanks are due to them).

Friday, 26 November 2010

Illarion Pleshchinsky (1892 - 1963): linocuts

The old art college in Kazan (renamed ARKHUMAS, that is Architecture and Art Works, after the Revolution) had become a centre for the avant garde by the time this small book of linocuts was published in 1920. The sugar paper front cover was designed by Illarion Nikolaevich who was a member of the graphics collective Vsadnik. This was active only between 1920 and 1924. As you can see the paper is pretty crude and the image and lettering combines modernism and directness in the exhilirating way of Russian artists of the time. (The Russian means '1st Rider', which was also the name of the exhibition).

The following year his work was included, alongside Kandinsky and Rodchenko, in the 3rd touring exhibition organised by the museums service. In the same year he made these linocut illustrations for the children's story 'The ram and the goat'. Again, I don't think these were exactly printed on japan. Each cut is tipped onto the page and the pages themselves were stapled together. But the images are far from simplisitic. Bold, modern, with a feeling for texture and form, they would have been in marked contrast to the ornate folklore art deco of Ivan Bilibin who was publishing at the same time. What early Soviet children knew about revolutionary graphics is hard to know but this image is some way from easy-reading. The flowing landscape is distinctive. As in all good picture books, stuff happens: trees guard, ponds glow, rocks watch but it's done with vigour. It isn't at all sentimental.

You can see from the cover just how cheap the production was. I would also guess this copy was bought more for parents than children. Only 500 copies were printed and it is now very rare.

I like the defining, rather doom-laden yellow behind the trees and the eccentric horns. He has taken time to express the texture of the animals' coats. The two friends are defined as the fates stand over them. You can in fact read the basic story image by image. There isn't any need for text.

The greens change to this uncanny, oriental turquoise for the image below as the wolves brew up the archetypal pot of energy. Only one real colour here, with dramatic use of white space. Please note the lack of red for fire. Pleshchinsky also had a career as a teacher of art.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Alfred Peter (Swiss, 1877 - 1959): woodcuts

Like a couple of other Swiss painters born around 1870, Alfred Peter also made surprisingly good woodcuts - proper graphic images that have very little that is painterly about them. Simple in conception, yes, but also effective and, what impresses me most, he was consistent in the approach he took to them. Nor have I ever seen one that is duff. This little classic of a bookplate for O Bertshci has all his trademark features: linear cutting, inventive borders, pale colour, faultless printing. (Keep in mind the fact that all these woodcuts are actual size). The cameo of the printer with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his press is a wonderfully workaday image in striking contrast to the grandiose heraldic pastiche around it. Perhaps O Bertshci was his printer.

The framing device he uses in this second print is also typical of his inventive use of line. The play between the stylised secessionst flowers and the leaves on the tree is another example of his subtlety. As with alot of the German-speaking bookplate makers, he often used puns (for those who don't speak German, Jaeger means hunter). You'll also notice most of the prints here are signed. This was fairly typical of European ex libris of the time, though not of the British ones. It tends to suggest he didn't see them as ephemera and took them seriously (which is not true of alot of collectors).

I'm sorry to say my scan isn't very fair to this next image either. The printing is super-sharp. With the elongated image and gregarious crows, we find Peter in a Japanese frame of mind. The sense of depth he achieves by using black, mauve and white is remarkable. The print correctly reads from bottom to top but he wears his orientalism the way I prefer it worn: quite casually. Whoever Franz Forster was, I envy him this delicate little masterpiece. What gives pleasure here is what Ben Jonson said about craftsmanship: 'See what man can say in a little'.

(By now, readers who took in the tone of my post on Sylvan Boxsius might notice something similar here). Information about Peter is hard to come by. There doesn't even appear to be anything in German. By their style, they must date from between about 1900 and 1910. This helps to explain their consistency. It would also mean he learned to cut soon after woodcut became chic and I reckon what was fashionable is the reason behind these deft little creations. Nor does this scan bring out the delicacy of the peacock feather border in this fourth print, a real masterstroke that reminds me, of all things, of a border of real cutlery painted by Jasper Johns round one of his pictures.

A more complex image, this one, using five colours. I'd guess the others involved two blocks and here you can see the painter of still life taking over, the suggestion of a cultured life made certain without the individual themselves being portrayed. Just two basic features, a vase of lilacs and a beribboned mandolin, and none of the striving lists that modern British book plate engravers go in for to say something about personality. He might pun on a name to come up with an image but here suggestion and simplicity, scent and sound, are everything you need to know. He might as well have just said, 'To aesthetes everywhere' and left it at that.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Helene Mass: four more woodcuts

Four more colour woodcuts by the German artist Helene Mass, along with some others for comparison. Above is an image already posted but in a different colourway. I think this must be a second version because I assume the shrubs are lilac. Or unlike the Kaiser perhaps she just liked blue trees! You be the judge. But below is the other version.

The one below of parkland horse chestnuts has already been posted as well but I came across an image which I understand is by Carl Thiemann. The two are remarkably similar in conception and, in fact, fellow members of the Berlin Secession were visitors to Dachau. I very much doubt Mass wouldn't know Thiemann's work.

Interesting, anyway. Perhaps Thiemman even took leaf out of Mass' book and took a a stroll through the Tiergarten. His print is the more conventional work.

I assume the next print is a later work and finds Mass in Frank Morley Fletcher mode. Again, I would doubt looking at this she wasn't familiar with his work. Of course it's freer than Frank and is more a felt landscape than he would go in for. Really quite a lovely image and one that came up on ebay not so long ago.

Finally, two prints in rustic mode and which I assume are earlier. I like the geraniums ranged around the garden table. It's personal and has genuine charm. Only four colours used here but already her tendency to put canopies over her prints is there.

Finally, a rural image which she actually doesn't do as much as you might think. The Mass trees and clouds are present. A bit awkward and perhaps too readily descriptive but I like the flowering bush tumbling over the fence. She obviously delights in that kind of thing.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bernard Rice (1900 - 1998): the Bosnian woodcuts

Some artists find the environment that makes them what they are; for Bernard Rice that place was Bosnia. He was born in Innsbruck only 21 year after the occupation of the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzogovina by Austria-Hungary. His father, also Bernard, was a maker of stained glass and Rice learned the craft of glass-making with him but also attended art school in Innsbruck (1915 - 1918). It was there he began to learn woodcut. (The family were not repatriated untill 1919). Frustratingly, I never met Rice but I now suspect he knew Bosnia before he left Austria. He began his adult training at the Westminster School of Art in London, followed by the Royal Academy Schools. Presumably, he studied drawing and painting because he painted later in life. He left London in 1922 to teach furniture design in a craft school in Bosnia, by then part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia. For a twenty-two year old, he already had a wide range of skills and he immediately began to put them to use.

He settled in the village of Vlasenica in eastern Bosnia some miles to the north-east of Sarajevo and many of his most memorable prints feature the snow-bound village and its inhabitants (fewer than 2,000). Not content with printmaking in this remote little country, he set about making his own blocks. But not just any blocks. For the one below of Travnik (in central Bosnia) he used limewood, a notably soft wood and quite different from the very hard boxwood his English contemporaries were using for their engravings. You can see the typically open, undulating grain of the limewood at the top of the print - he would have had to lower the block very slightly to have achieved that effect. Of course, not only that, he had pinned the planks in such a way that the gaps between showed as unprinted lines. This may have started out to some extent as truth to materials but he was also affected by the strict divisions of images used by stained glass artists. It's this adaptation of the technique that really is the remarkable thing. It shows someoneone with an unconventional imagination, to say the least, and also someone who was quite ready to throw out the rule-book, which I am pretty sure he had off by heart.

The minarets, tower and lines all combine as if the structures are suspended on cotton. At the bottom of the print you can see more of the gentle lowering of surface to achieve, which gives it the feel of mezzotint. Of course, this treatment would require equally individual printing. In fact, block preparation, cutting and printing are combined by Rice into works quite unlike any others in British printmaking. The do-it-yourself ethos is quite close to that of Eric Gill and his followers who began to move to the Sussex village of Ditchling after 1912 but the end result is basically central European. You can see Vlasenica in the woodcut below with its woven fences and haystacks, though cut is not quite the right word because Rice combines cutting and engraving in one and the same print.

The houses are better defined in the print below. You can see here they are made of wood and almost certainly thatched. Nor do I think you could tell that he had broken another cardinal rule here, the print being only a central section of a much larger work. He did this at least three times - in 'Podgorica', 'Vlasenica' and 'Travnik' (you can see a rather over-exposed photo of the big 'Travnik' below). I have to say this is one of my favourite prints. It doesn't have to be great but I have to say again that reproduction doesn't do it any justice. The effect of the printed areas against the wonderful handmade paper is magical - as all good prints need to be. What made me leave this print in the print box at Ayres on Museum St in London, I do not know; inexperience, I should think, and not being quite sure what to make of Rice at the time. Nevertheless, it came into my possession one fine day and many years later. It doesn't try hard, the organisation of black, white and line appears effortless. What he wanted to get across was the place, his numerous skills in the end are quite subordinate to what he obviously thinks is a marvellous subject. But my reaction then was a typical one. If it hadn't been for the writer and printmaker Albert Garret and his very untidy book and the London dealer Jonathan Blond, Rice would have been left disregarded in his Chelsea studio. The print establishment were bemused, or sniffy about his Bosnian woodcuts. Not easy to categorise - and they also probably saw things they just didn't care for.

We come now to my latest acquisition (it arrived two days ago). I am far from beyond making criticisms of Rice. There is often something I find irritating or dubious about his prints - the sketchy Serbian spruce and smoky printing in 'The Mill' (top) is annoying. Some of them I feel entirely dubious about. But this has no faults or far-fetched technique. It is quite different in both feel and scale to the previous one and is the only engraving he made on boxwood hence the small size. The relationship between the buildings, orchards, stacks and surrounding hills is one of considerable intimacy and isolation.

As a dismal addendum to this post, I need to say that only two villages like Vlasenica survived the civil war: Lukomir, which you see below, and another hamlet, are in the mountains to the south of Sarajevo near the boundary of the Federation and Republika Srpska. As you can see many have lost their wooden shingles and don't have the same Ottoman overhangs and plaster. You shouldn't assume that all the buildings are habitations. Some of the smaller ones are a combination of barn and byre (cowshed). I should also say these two places, like Rice's prints, are a precious part of the Bosnian patrimony.

Rice returned to London to study at the Royal College of Art in 1926. (No doubt he was in Malcolm Osborne's etching class). He married in 1927 and returned to Bosnia for another year. There were also exhibitions at the Chenil Gallery (1925) and the St George's Gallery (1926). It is now hard to work out what his reputation was then. He was certainly selling because the prints turn up, especially his images of Travnik. But many of the smaller prints are very scarce. Significantly, some of the prints I own have never been framed, always a big plus, mainly because their condition is so good.

He left for Cairo in 1929 to teach both wood and copper engraving, etching and fresco, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Sometimes I think he had too many skills for his own good. He left Cairo in 1939 and after the second war, taught wood engraving and drawing to sculptors at the Sir John Cass School (1949 - 1952). Work in other mediums does turn up, but not much. He made one very large print called 'Rammuda' on cotton. I even have a tablecloth he designed with Chinese style horses. His darker experiments (not included here) often seem to lack conception and rarely make satisfying images but he probed the ambiguities. The figure studies in particular are certainly not to contemporary taste and I can understand why Rice doesn't appeal to everyone. No matter. For me, there is only one issue: the next print, just around the corner. What else will it say about this rather extraordinary man and his sympathies?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Hiroshi Yoshida (1876 - 1950): Three little islands

Klaus Voigt made a very interesting comparison today between the Yoshida woodblock you see here and Carl Thiemann's boat prints. I thought it was well worth putting 'Three little islands' (1930) and Carl Thiemann's 'Abend' (1921) on one page for people to enjoy and compare - and, of course, so that we all know which print we are talking about.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Carl Thiemann (German, 1881 - 1966)

And now we finally come to the inscrutable Carl Thiemann. Always quite hard to know quite what to make of this artist but here goes. He spent his childhood in Karlsbad or Karlovy Vary as it's known in Czech. The town was then a part of Austria-Hungary, an empire that ran from the German border only a few miles from Karlsbad to Brasov in what is now central Romania. That would have meant very little to Carl who lost his father at the age of eight. What that meant was that instead of becoming an artist, he had to study business and help support the family. Even so, by 1905, when he was in his mid twenties, he was a student at the Prague Academy.

He followed the conventional course, studying painting, etching and lithography but when he met Walther Klemm at the academy all that went out the window. Colour woodcut came into his life - so much so he has come to exemplify the central European woodcut artist, period. How did he get there? Certainly Emil Orlik was of profound importance. He had passed on the Japanese technique to Klemm and in 1906 the pair of Karlsbaders set up together in a studio outside Prague and began on a collaborative book detailing the backstreets and allies of the old town. (See the first image). Subdued, subtle, he concentrates on the cramped life of the everyday. Staying with the elongated image, he introduces pattern, light and water and finally sets sail.

By 1907, he was creating image after image, some realist in a Japanese way, others like the one below far more dependant on the stylisation of art nouveau. These are landscapes of atmosphere where nothing happens. A sail is lowered, someone has left a washing basket in the street, and that's all.

What does happen though is that, as the year progresses, his palette finally begins to brighten and he starts to make the images for which he is now so famous. 'Birch trees in autumn' is, of course, a classic image by him, extraordinary for the vivid concentration and play of light. Others were more daring but no one made the Secession look as natural as he did. And this may help to explain why the following year he moved to the artists colony at Dachau some miles from Munich. It had been founded in the C19th but Thiemann and Klemm were among a second wave of younger artists (the Berlin secessionists like Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth being among the first) who had revitalised the colony.

Klemm stayed for five years but Thiemann married, built a house (see below) and got a job at the Munich Debschitz school in 1909. He certainly looked harder at the natural world and the landscape around him. But with a wife and family to support, I suspect the businessman he had had to become came into play once again.

Look at the way he adapts the wildly symbolist landscape of the Munich painter Franz von Stuck. He dumps the academic rigmarole and fancy-dress von Stuck loved and gives us uncomplicated image after image. Highly prolific, he worked in both colour and monochrome, producing cheaper unsigned editions detailing the woodwork of medieval Germany as well as the stark trees and glamorous boats that set the collector's heart beating.

He produced this snowy road to nowhere in 1909 and was elected a member of the Vienna Secession the following year. Basically, his career had taken off, with a very recognisable style and successful exhibitions.

Interesting as well to see what Klemm was doing at the same time. His 'Great Horned Owl' of 1911 has the sense of delicacy and living things that Thiemann never really has.

But Thiemann is the ultra colourist, quite able to describe this azalea in its pot, ready to hang on the sitting room wall. Klemm's art is an art of the mind, in the end; his friend appeals to the eye, he aims to impress (and he succeeds).

I have to say I particularly like 'Stream in winter' from 1915. He takes a suprisingly raw and painterly approach and very much succeeds in getting across the density of the air and the coldness of the stream. It is decorative and all tone but this is also the real frozen world of war-time.

He was still only in his mid thirties here, moving from the lyrical colourism of the early century towards the deco of the post war period. This print of an absurdly colourful lake is as elegant as Erte but less effortful. I still remember my amazement when I found 'Abend' below in a junk shop - the intensity of the colour, the deeply stylised horizon, the dishevelled sails. It is cold and unlikely as a dream but utterly desirable.

I think he knew this. It is the only print I know by him which he printed with a different colourway. It may well have been for the market (it was also sold by picture dealers in England) but there is also the sheer flair and joy of pure printmaking here. I have it beside me now and I assure you reproduction doesn't communicate its impeccable sense of scale or the daring of the raggedy keyblock or the depth of colour. My best buy ever...

I'm not sure in what order the tragedies struck Thiemann but both his wife and daughter met early deaths. Certainly, I've never seen any work later than his Venice pieces of the twenties but he was famous enough into war time. The Anscluss had taken place in March, 1938, followed by the Sudenten crisis in April, and the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1939. A 6oth birthday exhibition with over 200 exhibits was organised in his home town of Karlsbad in 1942 which was by then part of greater Germany (See map). It was a normal thing for German-speaking artists and writers to move between countries - I wanted to describe the way Orlik, Bormann, Leschhorn and Klemm all did this. It strikes me that Carl Thiemman did it with conviction.