Sunday, 8 July 2012

Japon-Paris-Bretagne: colour woodcuts at Quimper


Of the three exhibitions this week I've thought really worth visiting, Japon-Paris-Bretagne at Quimper will be the most important by far. Unfortunately, it will also be the one that the fewest readers will be able to visit with any ease. But at least it provides me with the opportunity to make some amends. French printmaking, for all its importance, just hasn't featured on Modern Printmakers, so here is a selection of the artists working 1880 to 1930 who you might see at the Musee Departemental Breton. I understand their collection once belonged to the Bibliotheque Nationale.

It is to their credit that they place their prints in the bigger context. But then one look at their website makes it plain the Musee Departemental may be regional but it has class. I don't detect any of that lurking localism so beloved of British art institutions. What I think you might get are quite a few delicate French landscapes like the one below, with a good deal of subtle Impressionst-style expanses of water. Many of these artists, unlike Jules Chadel (above), also failed to see what John Dickson Batten understand from the very beginning, that the graphic arts were not necessarily reproductive and more than that prints shouldn't look like paintings.


I have tried to include only colour woodcuts here (and I'm not always sure where woodcut leaves off and engraving begins with French prints) and I believe that is what they will be showing at Quimper. Henri Riviere gamely started out on a book of colour woodcuts in 1888 called Thirty-six views of the Eiffel Tower, wittily based on Hokusai's Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, only to find that the cutting and printing of colour woodcuts for an edition of 500 was beyond him. At that point he opted for lithography, probably not as Hokusai as he would have liked.


The print-exponents of the Grosvenor School and their followers in Britain like Leonard Beaumont for some reason believed pattern made them modern. The artists here were alot more subtle than that and overall do achieve a nice balance between pattern and description. The idea of a motif that Riviere picked up from Hokusai and used in a modern way was beyond the basic craft approach taken by many British and American  printmakers of the period.


But what surprised me most (and this is something of an admission) as I looked through images for this post, was how much some British printmakers were influenced by the French. Charles Mackie had met Gaugin and les Nabis; others, like Frank Morley Fletcher and Ethel Kirkpatrick, had studied in Paris; Kirkpatrick had even found her way to Brittainy. But it was the effect of Riviere's work on someone like John Platt that I found striking. I don't want to start out on the comparisons game. You can play it endlessly, especially when it comes to Japonisme, but the way British printmakers learned from French art well into the 1920s is facinating all the same - as fascinating as it's unexpected. Amedee Joyau (below) is not a million miles from Allen Seaby's view of the Isle of Wight, for instance. And Platt's Brixham trawlers owe more to this wonderful Joyau (bottom) than they do to Kirkpatrick. (Platt, like Ian Cheyne, also worked in France).


I am ashamed of the lack of accents but have been unable to work out how I can add them using blogger.

The exhibition runs at Quimper from 30th November, 2012, untill 3rd March, 2013, so you do have plenty of advance warning. If you make the effort to visit, bear in mind that Ethel Kirkpatrick would have approved, I am sure. Vive la France!



  1. Dear Sir,
    Thank you for your kind appreciation of my exhibition "Japon-Paris-Bretagne, la gravure sur bois en couleurs, 1880-1940". It ended just a few weeks ago (Ith March) and was very successful. In fact, it was the first exhibition about this subject ever organized in France !
    I would like to send you a short text about it with a few photographs : could you please give me your e-mail address (mine is philippe.lestum(@) This text his a short summary of my study for the exhibition catalogue. I'm just achieving a thesis about woodcut history ("La Bretagne dans la gravure sur bois, 1850-1950") and I must congratulate you for the serious and high quality of your blog.
    Sincerely yours,

    Philippe Le Stum
    Conservateur-directeur of the Musée départemental breton, Quimper

  2. I'm so glad your exhibition was such a success. It struck me as a brave departure and I was only sorry I couldn't tell which artists you were going to feature and that Quimper was so far from the English Midlands where I live.

    You may realise from other posts that there is currently an exhibtion of woodcuts by Sidney Lee, some in colour, at the Royal Academy in London. There have also been two Emil Orlik exhibtions recently at Regensburg and Hamburg, with an emphasis on Japan. And of course there was the Japonesque exhibition and book in San Francisco. So, there is fresh interest. The last comprehensive exhibitions in Britain were in 1940 and 1945 and the last selling exhibition in 1986.

    I am currently writing a book about British colour woodcut and linocut 1895 - 1950 and would be very pleased to hear about your own work. My email is: I'm curious to know whether you have been in touch with descendants of your artists. Some of the grandchildren of Austrian, German and British artists still have fascinating collections. I wonder if this is also the case in France. I was recently contacted by the grand-daughter of Siegfried Berndt, but unfortunately the e mail address that she left was incorrect. There is a book in the press apparently.

    Thank you for the kind words about the blog. I am about to make amends and feature Alphonse Legros and J-B Vettiner.

    Gordon Clarke