Sunday 22 September 2013

Modern Wood Block Prints at Brown-Robertson Gallery, New York, 1921


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.

I think much the same could be said of the work of Carl Alexander Brendel, not cheap then and not cheap now, and by comparison, Seaby is a floppy-tied dandy. We identify far more vividly with those oxen struggling over the crest of the hill than we do with Seaby's affecting grouse. This really is a little masterpiece of atmosphere, with the power of the animals and the heaviness of the clods played off against the delicacy of spring light. (The title Brown-Robertson gave was Spring and I am assuming this is the right image). Like Seaby, Brendel also works with the wood, but more like the painter, but as Seaby shows his subjects evading us, Brendel has them coming close enough to hear the heaving breath.

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.

With Giles himself, we are on more certain ground. The passing of the crescent, Umbria is as well-judged as any of his prints, occult without ever overdoing it, and providing inspiration for more than one artist. It is his cypress version of Stonehenge and a colour woodcut that shows how much a watercolour sketch could be built on and translated into woodblock. Urushibara when he tried something similar with Queen of the Night was rather hopeless by comparison. S.G. Boxsius was more astute in his use of Giles' receding shapes and gentle light, but flattened in the modern way, and missing Giles' seriousness of purpose.

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.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Walter J. Phillips by Nancy Green

Books about colour woodcut or linocut artists are becoming something of a cottage industry this year. Leonard Beaumont, Sidney Lee and Eric Slater are now joined by Walter Phillips from Pomegranate Press in Portland, Oregon. It is more of an appreciation than a scholarly work, with contributions from two of Phillips descendants, and a longer piece by the Cornell Arts & Crafts scholar, Nancy E Green. She goes over the life, adding details I had not come across before, and looking at his work as an artist making colour woodcuts (139 of them), watercolours, wood-engravings and etchings.
Yes, he was as prolific as he was determined. He also did not start making colour woodcut until about 1916, so the number he made is remarkable, especially given the high standards he set himself. The book itself is mildly disappointing. There are a lot of images, all in colour, but somehow not quite right. The selection lacks the impact of Phillips at his best. He was a rather self-contained man, making a lot of striking but self-contained images. (The ones you see here and not necessarily in the book, although The Chinese Coat is). He used his children frequently as models (and also presumably his wife, Gladys) but the book doesn't say who his subjects are. Nor does Nancy Green talk about Phillip's country in Manitoba (along Red River), and then later Alert Bay in British Columbia.

There are mistakes in the book - worse, they are other people's mistakes, which could easily have been avoided by reading the actual documents. Getting gallery names in London wrong is the kind of thing a scholar shouldn't do, but that Nancy Green has made a core subject. Perhap the problem is that the ground has already been covered more than once. A biography appeared during Phillip's lifetime, which is the main source for a lot of what we know about his life, and there were also books about him in 1978 and 1981. But this is the first to be made widely available by a publisher and is a must for your bookcase.

I was hoping for more about his return to Britain in the mid twenties and the artists that he met. It was a crucial time for Phillips. It was where Urushibara handed over his know-how, and he gained the expertise that gave his prints the perfection that people pay so much for. I opened the package with anticipation, but what comes over here is a lack of fresh research, the sort of thing you look for in a new book about an artist. But it isn't that kind of a book and, for all its handsome American exterior and uncluttered layout, it's all a touch dull and been there. Even so, at £13.52 on Amazon, (which is what I paid) or an ebay, it's a book you ought to own. Just apply the plastic.


Wednesday 11 September 2013

On ebay in Germany

This week German ebay provides you with an opportunity to see one or two colour woodcuts you will not see very often as well as one or two nice-looking prints by more well-known artists. Above all, there is Helene Mass' rich and subtle Gehoeft im Schnee, with remarkably bright fresh colours. It just shows what a difference a good photograph also makes. This print re-affirms my faith in Mass, which I confess sometimes wavers. This is Mass at her most thrilling, convincing and successful

Not as good perhaps but even more expensive is another rarity by Helen Tupke Grande. No matter. You won't even pick much up on a Google search except her wonderful print of Venetian boats.

Speaking of which there is an unusually bright image of Carl Thiemann's Venezianischen Fischerbooten. I know it's fairly standard stuff fro him, but it does come with copious notes by the master himself. With all the glassy reflections, this reminds me of the famous Abend and I think when you see this close-up and personal, those daubed reflections will look impressive.

More low-key, but no less interesting for all that, is a muted colour woodcut by the Polish artist, Stefan Flipkiewicz, who is new to me. It's unusually early, dating from 1908, a time when artists were still often working with few colours. You can see where Mass had her roots and what she would have done with an image like this.

Finally, this intense and lyrical image by Zdrasila Adolf, yet another name that is new to me, and an unusual woodcut whose bright colours look almost contemporary. I would like to see a larger, better photograph of this - or better still, the print itself. This is hard to judge by what we can see here. It has a fairy-tale delicacy that reminds me of French prints and I especially like the play-off of sunlight and shadow. More complex that it might look at first sight.

Sunday 8 September 2013

D.N. Morgan

Here's an unusual and attractive British printmaker you don't come across very often, the colour woodcut artist, D.N. Morgan. He was a major in the British Army and was awarded the Military Cross in 1915 (although I don't know where). I suspect he had Edinburgh connections but he ended up working in Sussex in the later twenties.

Both these delicate colour woodcuts remind me of the work of Frank Morley Fletcher's students like Elizabeth York Brunton. He was exhibiting with the Colour Woodcut Society in the mid to late 1920s and it strikes me that after that he either opted for brighter colours or he began to use linocut.I assume these were intended as a pair. They certainly go together well, although  Richmond, Yorkshire  is the stronger of the two. (The other print is Branscombe Chine, Bournemouth, which is Urushibara country.)

You do need to beware because he also produced lithographs at some point that look very similar to these other two prints of India. The one above is The Jhelum, Shrinigar, the one below is Shrinigar, Kashmir. Both date from 1929 and, for all the strength of colour, they lack the impact of the first two, which obviously make conventional use of the Japanese method of woodblock printing.

Still, I suppose I wouldn't mind any of them if they were a lot less than the £250 starting bid on ebay, that is. (The first two prints only). If I wanted to spend that kind of money at auction, I would have to be buying something a bit more special than Major Morgan. Rarity doesn't count for someone with such a low profile. It's only quality that matters.

And for anyone that missed them the first time around, they are back again on ebay today and the same starting bid of £250 will produce the same result.