Sunday, 21 August 2011
Ian Fleming, Ian Cheyne & Laboureur
I have to admit that for a long time I looked on the Scottish artist Ian Fleming (1906 - 1994) as an also-ran. I first came across his colour woodcuts at an exhibition way back in 1986 and I should think I was too shocked by the prices being asked to take in anything else about the show. In my defence, I've only had monochrome catalogue illustrations between then and now. But that really is no excuse and, to be fair to him, colour woodcut wasn't Fleming's stock-in-trade, anyway. I know of only five colour woodcuts - the two I have posted here and three others, called Aspidistra, Road to the valley and Mist in the valley. OK, he wasn't good on titles, but I am going to assume all his woodcuts date from early on in his career. He produced the lyrical Parkscape, with its subtle modernity, in 1928 while still a student at Glasgow School of Art.
Or, to be more exact, he appears to have produced a very humble edition of three to begin with. Parkscape. Sunshine & rain was less snappy than the abruptly modernist Parkscape but that was its first title. As you see the second edition ran into a modest twenty-five. Glasgow tenement window (I am sorry to say only in monochrome) is equally subtle, framing the three yards and adopting the high viewpoint that became such a strong feature of his work. This print adopts a restricted view, later work does not, and perhaps behind it are the limitations placed upon student work. His teacher of woodcut at Glasgow was the influential Chica MacNab. To my intense frustration, I've been unable to turn up even one image by MacNab to show just how her work might have affected printmakers like Fleming and Winifred MacKenzie (another of her students). What these two have in common in their early work is the modern manner and I shall assume they learned that from MacNab.
But, in the end, it was his teacher of engraving, Charles Murray (1994 - 1954) who was to have the more enduring effect. Murray had himself been a student at Glasgow and is credited with reviving the art of copper engraving before even innovators like Robert Austin who taught at the RCA in London. Murray was something of a renegade who first fought with the White Army, then won the Prix de Rome before travelling, settling down again at his old art school and eventually hitting the bottle. Fleming wisely exchanged Murray's fine but mannered style for the urbane and voguish approach of the Breton engraver Jean-Emile Laboureur (1877 - 1943). Like Murray, Laboureur also got around but there was less of Iceland and Russia and more of Paris, London and New York. And in some ways this neatly sums up the appeal of Fleming's own work: there are the lyrical incidents of gardens and the Galloway and Dumfries countryside (as you will see below in Laboureur) but he never forgets his home town. Glasgow was his convincing subject, and no more so than in his wonderful engraving of 1930, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.
The same is true of the incisive Modern suburbia from 1929. This was the year he left art school (he first attended in 1924) and the youthful wish to take a modern view of things is evident in the title. But for everything he seems to have learned from Laboureur - the strong contrast of light and shadow, the linear, descriptive approach - he is already his own man. I also have to admit that I prefer these early works. There's a freshness of vision here and a strong desire to show aspects of the world he lived in. Ironically, he is a realist in a way that the man from Nantes never is. He has taken the lessons of Laboureur about the complexities of modern lives to heart but he never sinks to pastiche.
Nor does Ian Cheyne (1895 - 1955). I am unashamedly re-posting my own Summer Picnic and his masterly Campers just to show how brave Ian Fleming was. Fleming never achieved work with this panache. By comparison, he looks almost antiquarian. But he was an engraver first and foremost and I always have the greatest admiration for printmakers who can make both convincing woodcuts and intalgio prints. Laboureur tried both but his woodcuts tend to look like pattern-making. Cheyne started off as a painter. He was eleven years older than Fleming but didn't attend Glasgow School of Art untill 1921 - 1923. He may have trained first at another school, or the war may have interrupted his studies. I don't know. Whatever the case, somewhere along the way, he meshed the contemporary impact of Laboureur with the mastery of Hokusai to come up with something utterly unique and deeply desirable.
He was brought up in the seaside town of Broughty Ferry, on the east coast of Scotland, near Dundee, but all we really know about him are the colour woodcuts that have set a standard for all those productions of the 1920s and 1930s. I have already posted as many as I can (well, there are one or two more). As for Laboureur himself, I leave you with two copper engravings from 1916 and the early twenties, and two woodcuts from a similar period. Just compare, if you will, the shapes of the trees on the hill in Le Printemps with the trees on the left in Fleming's Botanic Gardens, Glasgow or the meshes of the fishermens' nets with the meshing of the rain and light in Parkscape. Cheyne's frothy trees and cubist tents are more obvious loans but we take them as they were intended, with great good humour. And although there is no record of Fleming and Cheyne meeting, it's pretty certain that they did know one another through exhibiting with fellow Scots (and Englishmen) at the Society of Artist-Printmakers (Cheyne was treasurer). The 1930s market for prints held up better in Scotland than in England and this attracted English printmakers like Edgar Holloway to show with them. He knew both Cheyne and Fleming and exchanged Cheyne's West Highland Loch for one of his own etchings. Which shows just how much they learned from one another.