Monday, 15 April 2013
William Strang: the portrait of a period
On the face of it, the graphic work of William Strang may not have alot in common with many of the artists already featured on Modern Printmakers, but intuition led me to him all the same, simply perhaps because he is more a part of the period than the early colour woodcut artists are. And apart from that, as graphic artists go, when not too glum, he is pretty good.
He came down from Dumbarton in Scotland to train at the Slade School of Art as John Dickson Batten and Mabel Royds were to do after him. Unlike them, he had the good fortune to find a fine graphic artist as his professor. This was Alphonse Legros, one time friend of Henri Fantin Latour, Edouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire but now washed up in London (and, in fact, a British subject). He was a man with a history, who would tell his students through his assistants who acted as interpreters, 'If you are going to rob anyone, rob the rich, not the poor.'
I think Strang took him at his word. If Laurence Binyon's collar and tie (in the etching second from the top) are by Ingres, then it was Degas did the hands for Strang. Possibly not what Legros was thinking about, but never mind. The simple point I want to make is that Strang trained at a time when what you learned had to be filtered through tradition and graphic art, whether print or drawing, was uniformly monochrome, and no doubt he found himself breaking with tradition when he added colour in much the same way the colour woodcut artists did. His use of colour moves in paralell with their own. All the same, the portrait of his cataloguer, Binyon, is just as 1890s in its subtle blend of the casual and the fine as anything by Aubrey Beardsley.
But these portraits owe more to the realism of Hans Holbein than they do to the realism of the French. And beyond that, Holbein also offered him the precedent of adding colour to his drawings. In fact, with Strang it wasn't only a matter of adding colour, he began with tinted paper and applied chalks so finely, I was once able to pick up his portrait of William Cunningham for £10 simply because the auctioneer couldn't see any obvious drawn marks and took it for a reproduction, it is so smoothly done. Somewhere he crossed a line between his early realism and style and turned modern, so much so the portrait of the girl at the top could be Viennese if it were only that more abstract. I wonder what Legros made of it all, these suave, sombre, unsettling beings who needed colour - well, apart from this one.