Sunday, 14 October 2012
Bror Nordfeldt & colour woodcut
Of all the artists who made colour woodcuts, Bror Nordfeldt is the best to play spot-the-influence with. The ironic thing is this: in a period of only about ten years he came up with a style of woodcut that was his own. With his use of fine muted greys and blues and pensive figures, he described a special country - the lost land of memory.
In 1894, at the age of fourteen, he had been taken with his parents from rural southern Sweden to go and live in the great American city of Chicago. The Swedish community there had their own newspaper and he found work as a typesetter. True to the time, he studied art as he worked, in his case at the Art Institute in Chicago, before moving on to the Herter brothers interior decoration business in New York City. This led directly to the the first of his moves back to Europe. In 1900 the firm were to display a mural at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and he was taken as an assistant by Albert Herter, to help with the work of installation.
Herter knew Paris. He had been a student at the Academie Julien where he had made friends with the British artist Frank Morley Fletcher, and there is something almost predestined about the way that Nordfeldt left the Herters and stayed on in Europe. First he enrolled himself at Herter's old academy and next moved on to Britain, to study with Herter's old friend.
Or, so they say. By 1900, Nordfeldt could have studied with Fletcher at a number of places. In a way, it doesn't really matter where. The precision keyblock and flat planes of colour he makes use of in The spinning wheel looks alot more like Sydney Lee than Fletcher. So far as I can see Fletcher taught the selective, expressive cutting that is typical of his best work. You only have to look at the other people he worked with. Mabel Royds, Ethel Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Christie Brown, Allen Seaby all follow on from Fletcher in their own way. The spinning wheel is an odd mix of Fletcher's print Reading (no, not the place), John Dixon Batten, Lee, Mary Cassat and French realism (and probably lots of other things, as well). The facts are that Batten, Lee, Fletcher, Royds and Brown were already artists and were far from being merely students. Nordfeldt arrived in England when the word was spreading and they were learning from one another.
The word went down as far as Cornwall. I don't want to imply that any of these sea-scapes are Cornish. He is well outside of the British topographical tradition and never identifies the scene, but true to form he seems to have picked up something else in Cornwall: another artist's name (he sandwiched it between the ones he already had).. Julius Olsson may well have sounded Swedish, but he came from Islington and moved down to Cornwall in the 1880s, became an expert yachtsman, and set up a school of painting at St Ives. He had one great subject: waves. I'm assuming Nordfeldt took Lee's example and went down to St Ives, where he studied with Olsson, and was impressed enough to put their names together.
From Cornwall and England, he moved on to the coast of western Sweden, but by 1903, the year he made The long wave, he was back at home in Chicago where colour woodcut would have been a novelty. Arthur Wesley Dow was the only other artist making them in the US at that time, and he was way out on the east coast (see his post). Like Dow, Nordfeldt began to teach the technique. One of his students, Mary Colwell, also appears to have worked in Cornwall. You can see her Cornish coast below. Her early work is quite alot like her teacher's.
And there is more of the Olsson effect on colour woocut with Lee's The bay, St Ives (bottom). If my own mixed feelings about Nordfeldt and his work have come through in this post, I will also say that, if nothing else, the addition of these two last prints do suggest one more thing: Nordfeldt saw more than waves in Olsson, he recognised the surging vision.