The vogue of the block print is rapidly increasing among those that admire modern decorative effect, and it is an art that holds out a tempting invitation to the collector. Never a truer word, and all the more salutary coming from the front of the catalogue to the 1921 'Modern Wood Block Prints' at the New York gallery of the print dealers, Brown-Robertson. This was a ground-breaking exhibition, with both black and white and colour prints from the U.S and six European countries. It was also notable for the artists who were missing, but it showed what a wide range of work there was to be had for $15 or $20, all the same
I have tried to be strict with myself by including only the prints that were exhibited that spring on Madison Avenue, but I have had to make reasonable guesses with German artists like Carl Alexander Brendel and Helene Tupke Grande. I was lucky to find the images for them in the first place. The gallery also played fast and loose with titles themselves, misreading Torcello and stuff such as that, and I have kept to the titles we use tend to to day. Their title Tree Trunks didn't provide much to go on with Carl Thiemann, but readers of this block will be familiar with his tree images, anyway. Less commonly seen is Elizabeth Colwell's Three elms by the lake. I don't know much about Colwell, but here she successfully combines European influences with the American tendency towards abstraction. She never truly escaped from the influence of her teacher, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, a deeply irritating artist who had the temerity to ask $50 for one of his prints at the show. But Colwell did at least have a personal viewpoint, which comes over in the two prints by her at Brown-Robertson.
Helene Tupke Grande's Night may be cute, but shows what a different approach the Europeans took to structure. The way artists like Tupke Grande and Allen Seaby make use of Japanese artists shows by how much their are interested in observation as in decorative effect. This was particularly true of the best British artists like Seaby. Never at a loss for a subject, Flying Grouse finds him on top form, responding both to his subject and the medium he is using with a comprehensiveness that was beyond many of the other artists in the show.
For all the self-consciously beautiful colours, Seaby always works with the wood and never conceals the medium. This is always true of the scatterings of vegetation he used, as it is with the plumage of birds and those imperfect blue edges. As he took successive proofs, removing wood as he went along, a poetic subtlety crept into his work. He always observes, but always finds more, identifying with the birds without a trace of sentimentality.
Nothing could be farther from all this than Gustave Baumann's exqusite The ridge road. With its visionary confidence it is assuredly American. And you can muck about with Impressionism all you like, but Monet never handled pink and mauve with such unabashed fervour. But just like Seaby and Brendel, he remains true to the wood, and for all the action-painting outlandishness, this is the image of somewhere we immediately recognise as a real place. Baumann's is an adventurous art, with its hiking boots on.
I wish I could say the same for Margaret Patterson's rather messy prints. She rarely rises to her subject, be it Venice or grandma's flowers. Her trabacola looks more like a barge negotiating a sedate Dutch canal. Ethel Kirkpatrick re-invented herself in Venice, but here we have only a bright, bold image, impressive in its confidence, but astray in Europe. She would only need to add some sails to the bell-tower of Santa Maria Assunta to move the whole production to Holland.
Hardly less original was Fritz Lang's Turkey, a terrible crib from Walther Klemm and already fifteen years out-of-date. German decorative artists by this point were moving away from the old style of the Vienna Secession towards something we instinctively recognise as art deco, and well before the Paris exhibition of decorative arts in 1925 that provided us with the name.
I have featured Ada Collier's Sweet Market, Tangier on 'Ada Collier, ancient and modern' but new images by Collier are impossible to find. I have actually looked for the sweet market, but I don't think it exists anymore. I wonder if she made any other prints of Morocco. She is such a fine artist, it is so frustrating to have so little by her. She was taught to make colour woodcut by William Giles during the first war and her use of shape owes a good deal to him, though capable of making curdled reflections of her own. She also exhibited Polperro Harbour and Martigues at Brown-Robertson, giving away her liking for visiting the kinds of places that artists stayed in without appearing to make the commitment to being an artist that her teacher did. But then, I am shooting in the dark with Collier.
In the end, what is most noticeable about many of the colour prints in the show is how few of them look forward to the vigour and worldliness of the colour woodcuts of the twenties. Admittedly, I haven't included the two prints John Hall Thorpe exhibited, but the fact that he was there, busily copyrighting his work, does show how much he helped set the tone in Britain, at least. Thiemann, Patterson (above) and Collier are closest in colour and dash to the jazz age, but Hall Thorpe was equal to its banality.