Saturday 19 February 2011

Mikhail Matorin: wood-engravings & linocuts

I have only been able to track down these five images by the Russian printmaker and painter Mikhail Vladimirovich Matorin (1901 - 1976). Fortunately, they are all fine prints and come from different periods of his career. (The biographical dates I gave here are conservative and I am not going to use all the written material available online). He trained in Moscow - it appears to have been a very long training by west European standards - but had already produced this rather brilliant colour wood-engraving by the age of twenty. It comes from his portfolio 'Six still-lifes' a set of linocuts and wood-engravings printed by the artist and published in Moscow in 1921 and has nothing in common with the work we associate with the revolutionary avant-garde. Instead Matorin has looked steadily westward, at the work of Cezanne and Matisse, and printed this black-and-orange translation. It is certainly fascinating to see a Soviet artist using the same kind of colour combinations as Arthur Rigden Read in Britain. I think it's a wonderfully original take on the conventional table-top still-life and would hold its own against Laboureur. I would also very much like to see what the other five prints look like. I find very few colour wood-engravings entirely convincing. This one is. The idealised and sculptural wood-engraving of Lenin dates from 1935. I assume that is is based on the notorious photograph of Lenin addressing soldiers in Red Square in 1920 - the one from which Trotsky was removed. It loses for being less than realistic but you cannot fault his subtle constructivist framing device. Nor is it consistent with the earlier print but would not be out of place amongst north American left-wing prints of the 1930s and 1940s. It is also weakened by the fact that we are so familiar with heroic images of Lenin. But the modelling and cutting have great appeal.
This next work was sold as a colour woodcut so we can now begin to see what kind of a range he had as a printmaker. For whatever reason, he has moved on from his early modernist and propaganda stances to something more conventional but no less interesting for all that. This is a subtle complex work where he was just as interested in structure and perspective as in his earlier work. (I am assuming he cannot have made this before he was twenty although it would fit in with the architectural fantasies of artists like Ivan Bilibin).
'New Moscow' is a linocut from 1938. Again the dramatic use of perspective wouldn't be out of place amongst contemporary American or British artists. The warm peach, rose and apricot are both lyrical and beautifully handled; the diffused light of a socialist dawn is academic - but not too much so. He had scruples. The light also contrats oddly with the rigour and massiveness of the buildings. There is a thirty year gap between this linocut and the one below, 'View of Red Square' (1967). I like this one least - mainly because of the semi-abstract cars and people. But then I'd be equally irritated by this in French art of the fifties. But the same interests are there - structure and colour. Despite going on to teach at the Moscow Academy, he doesn't display the dead hand of the academic. His contemporaries in western Europe would have maintained a more obviously consistent style throuhgout their careers and clearly Matorin had to shift with the requirements facing both an artist and a teacher during the Soviet era. But then very few British artists who were making prints as early as 1921 were still doing so as late as 1967. Not only did he maintain his interest in printmaking, he went on doing it well.

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