Sunday, 11 September 2011
Helen Ogilvie: the 1930s
It's a shame that Helen Ogilvie (1902 - 1993) didn't make more linoccuts like The white evening dress. I think it's a small classic, a beguiling subject approached with a Vienna Secession sense of space and detachment. It's also mildly sinister, the kind of work Arthur Rigden Read might have produced if he had walked out of the Dower House in Winchelsea, Sussex, only to spend days on end lost in the bush. But this wish of mine for more figure subjects goes counter to what interested Ogilvie as an artist.
To show you what I mean, I have teamed the linocut with her wood-engraving The crab. Both have a similar sense of predatory creepiness that allows the subject to work its way across the picture plane; and both have the same vivid sense of light and dark. (When she does white, it is spectacular). The shawl hanging down from the woman's left arm has become an extension to herself, like the legs of the crab.
Like the crab, she achieves her ends by gradual means. Chooks in the straw uses a classic combination of violet, white and black, with smaller areas of red to create, amongst other things, this wonderful white. Even on a pc monitor, you can see the whites of the birds are graded so that it darkens as it gets closer to the violet-grey behind them.
Even though her name sounds thoroughly Scottish, she grew up in rural Australia, at Corowa, New South Wales. The only formal training she received were three years at the National Gallery School in Melbourne (1922 to 1925). Apart from the seven years in London, she spent the rest of her adult life there, in Melbourne. Even so, as far as I know, the city never appears in her prints. All of her work, the paintings and the prints, take the Australia of pioneer shacks and Victorian wrought iron, the plants of the bush and sometimes the animals of the farm, as their subject. The glamour of the evening dress is little more than a blip.
What she liked about printmaking was the immediacy of the cutting process; she felt there was an intimacy between the activities of her brain and her hand. All the same, satisfaction was far from easy to achieve. Just like Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme, she read about the technique in Claude Flight's Lino-Cut, first published in 1927. Unlike them, she had to content herself with the book. As she tried to teach herself, she said, 'I became very worked up about it and had no way of learning'. Her own Flight turned out to be someone closer to home, another Melbourne artist, the painter and printmaker, Eric Thake (1904 - 1982).
Thake showed her how to use her improvised tools. All this says alot about her attitude and the art she was to produce. This co-operation between artists in Melbourne reminds me of the early days of woodcut and then linocut in both Vienna and London between 1900 and 1925. And I think it was this process that eventually gave her prints the vigour and freshness they have. Although she placed herself in the British white line tradition, it was the great individualists amongst them that she mentions - Thomas Bewick (1753 - 1828), Edward Calvert (1799 - 1883) and Eric Gill (1882 - 1940). Again, her only access to their work was through illustrations in books. There was no Noel Rooke to go off to at the Central School in London. Essentially, like Calvert and Gill, she was on her own and she was the better for it.
She used linocut first but the earliest exhibtions I've come across were in 1933. (She exhibited untill 1939). By the time she made this first image of Banksia about 1938, she had made a virtue of rough-and-ready methods. There is no attempt to disguise the activities of cutting and printing and this is where she comes closer to the powerful expressiveness of the Die Brucke group of artists in Germany than Flight and his followers. She may or may not have known the work of the pre-war German artists but, like them, she made her own discoveries; in this way she emulated the pioneers in their little wooden houses.
I have had to stretch the usual definition of the 1930s to include this second image of Banksia made about 1942. By now she casts light and dark around with the panache of a Gertrude Hermes but with far less of the refinement. Both her cutting and her use of the picture plane make me think much more of German artists, especially the architect and printmaker Adolf Kunst (1883 - 1937) and Walther Klemm (1883 - 1957). The final little landscape is so much like Kunst's later linocuts, I would have thought it was one of his for sure. But what they have in common is this: a lack of formal training in printmaking. All three of them could be refined (as we have already seen from the large colour prints of Ogilvie's) but you can just as often see all of them rolling up their sleeves as well.
The old weather bureau may well be in Melbourne, after all. It was made about 1935 but could almost be the work of a British engraver of the 1980s revival. There is the same sense of care both for the craft and about the past. I think in this she was also a kindred spirit with Eric Thake. You also see a growing interest in form in these last two engravings. The clouds are a nice, witty touch.
These two images, the linocut Kangaroo Paws and another Banksia engraving (circa 1935) show just how much she uses the two mediums in different ways. Like Mabel Royds, she makes no real attempt to suggest depth in the colour print, it is about colour and surface. The engraving approaches light and depth head on. Her cutting is never reduced to fantasy as it can be in Hermes. And the very fact that I can confidently make that comparison shows just how far Ogilvie had come since the day she first opened Lino-Cut in the late 1920s. It is a very good print indeed and one I wish I owned.
And here at last is a little landscape, stony and brown in the foreground, with low grey hills in the distance. All the other prints included here show enclosed spaces or objects without background. Like Kunst's work, this one has a childlike simplicity of image and cutting. Here is someone who was confident about what she wanted to do with any one particularly print. And she got on with it.