Thursday, 31 May 2012
Ethel Mars: a child's garden of colour woodcuts
I am sorry to admit that this is my first post ever about a printmaker from the United States but I hope to make amends with my take on Ethel Mars. It's unfortunate that I also have to add that Mars was to some extent an adoptive European. But I have to start somewhere.
She trained as an artist in her home-town of Cincinnati. While at art school she also met her life-long partner, Maud Hunt Squire, and once their studies were done with, the couple moved to New York where they first worked together as illustrators, often of children's books, including Robert Louis Stevenson's 'A child's garden of verses' (hence the title).
I think you can see from the illustrations, they had already acquired the necessary repertoire of styles, which included art nouveau. Number one, the two of them were aware. This is the first thing that interests me about their work. Before learning to make colour woodcuts, Mars had already begun to simply. The great areas of the girl's dress or the bedclothes are advance warning of the abstractions to follow.
Presumably, it was around the time they lived in New York that Mars studied colour woodcut with Arthur Wesley Dow. I've not come across any details about this, but as Dow was the only person in the US with the skills to hand on the technique at the time, it follows. Her work is sometimes like his, more perhaps when she approaches American subjects, and I've no doubt the Ipswich influence is there. Simplified prints of boats and harbours exist but as soon as the two women left for Europe, and eventually settled in Paris, her work takes on a whole range of meaning.
By all accounts, she was a great exhibition-goer, and Paris was certainly the place to see all kinds of modern art. On one other blog at least, there has been an attempt to show the effect Kandinsky had on her work. But this is superficial. The fact they both made prints of women in elaborate clothes says very little. Kandinsky was working through his rich combination of folk motifs and art nouveau; Mars was taking clothes out of the dressing-up box.
To me, these women look rather like children playing at being adults. Observation of social patterns is everywhere in her work. If it isn't fashionable women, it is ducks and flamingoes. Even with the idyllic houses and gardens, social life is implied. And this is miles from the formality of Kandinsky. The ageing man appraising the attractively-dressed young woman in the street , above, would be caricature if less deftly handled. She draws far more from Edouard Vuillard, but she goes in for street-scenes, not interiors like him where the inhabitants wilt from ennui. The streets and the little dogs are more in line with Pierre Bonnard. She was adept at picking what was of use to her. She looked at alot of more-or-less contemporary French art and translated it, like someone trying to learn a language.
It is a view of things from outside, decorative, charming but the analysis that is second-nature to the French, is lacking. For all the elaborate costume, these are direct and unpretentious prints. Mars set a convention of her own, and she followed it. Back in the States, the couple settled in Massachusetts, at Cape Cod, not that far from Dow's backyard at Ipswich. But they eventually returned to France, this time heading south to Provence. It was other conventions that captivated them.