Saturday, 17 March 2012
Earlier this week I received an e mail from Srdjan Milic who is a local historian at Vlasenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He had been interested to learn that the British artist Bernard Rice had lived in the town (it was then a village of 2,000 inhabitants) asnd wanted to know more. I would have very much liked to have found more information about this period of Rice's life but all I know is this: he was in Bosnia between 1922 and 1926 and again in 1927 - 1928. Looking at the dates of his prints, the village you see here must show Vlasenica during his first stay in the country. But it isn't certain they all show the village although I think they probably do.
So far as technique goes, Rice was the least conventional of British wood-engravers, often rejecting the traditional hard woods like boxwood for softer woods like lime, laurel and cherry. He liked to exploit the differences between the summer and winter growth of the wood, sometimes lowering the softer wood to achieve an effect that is similar to mezzotint.
The prints sometimes look like they have printed unevenly but I think this was beside the point to Rice. He made his own blocks and on occasions utilised the fine gaps between the planks and let them suggest the structure of the print, most famously in his print of Travnik. At the back of all this apparent casualness, there is a considerable craftsman who began by selecting his wood with care before working the image around the marks already present on the block.
The approach has alot in common with some of the very earliest forms of print - Chinese prints from stone being one. Whilst Morley Fletcher and his followers were absorbed in the subtleties of Japanese printmaking, Rice was considering something more archaic, and no one gets more a genuine feel for a place than Rice. This was what he lived and I think the empathy he felt for life in Bosnia shows.
One of his most disarming traits was to take sections of one print and make them into another. It always seemed to me fairly arbitrary in one way but if you didn't know he had done this, you would never have guessed. The rather poor image shows the largest of three that he made; the one above shows part of the right hand section. In this print he was less interested in the wood than in the paper. A monitor image cannot possibly get over the quality of this print. He works completely with the type of paper he is using, an approach that is more genuinely oriental than any taken by the colour woodcutters working in the Japanese manner.
It is quite hard to say how Rice developped these sympathies. But they were there and interestingly enough, he failed to settle in England and only came for good when the second war broke out. He initially trained with his father in stained glass and everything follows on from that. The snowy rooftops of Vlasenica become panes of glass, the trees and hedges the intervening lead. He was an intuitive, in many ways; the map was already in his mind. At Vlasenica, he found the place.