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.


  1. You are in your element here Charles, and I love reading it. The Brendel print is stunning and so wonderfully Germanic as well as having depth and distance. It's hard not to be taken with it. It's all in the sky and the perspective. Of course Baumann was very much part of that tradition and if I remember correctly he also studied in Germany. It shows. I think the one British artist that comes closest to that tradition is Giles, and largely because he treated the topics with such passion for colour, depth and detail. I love the foreground of the print you have featured here, simply because you can almost feel the dips and curves in the ground. He was at his best when he is expressing his love of the landscape, and his vantage point. Collier has taken on board that Giles love of the watery colours rather than the saturated colours that were popular at the time. In some ways Giles and Collier seem to be stubbornly Edwardian at a time where art was hurtling toward Art Deco.

    I have never understood the passion for Patterson in the USA. I find her work to be dull, flat and....dare I say it....uninspired. Her works seem to be trying to be something that they never end up being but it has to do with her location rather than her skill, and I also think she was celebrated at a time when not a huge number of American artists were printing woodblocks at the time, and exhibiting them. That is my image looking back at the NY Times articles talking about her work back in the day. She was widely lauded but it often seemed to me to be more related to the time and the desire to celebrate a local artist than anything to do with her gift.

    Hall Thorpe....well....he was Hall Thorpe.

  2. I'm please you enjoyed the post. That was an astute aside about Giles and the German tradition. He spent time in Germany once he left Reading, but nothing is so far known about those missing years he spent abroad.

    Quite a few of the American women woodcut artists at that time lacked finesse, Ethel Mars and Edna Boies Hopkins being two others (who are much more likeable than Patterson). It was an aesthetic that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. They all moved over to Europe without ever giving themselves over to European sophistication (from what I can make out).

    By the way, a book turned up on ebay recently that should have had a little Boies Hopkins in there. It had been removed. Such a shame.

  3. Apart from one Dutch harbour-scene the best print by Brendel that I have ever seen.


  4. I've not seen that many myself, but I do know that one, and I know what you mean.

  5. The commentary on these works is really spot on. I'm no critic myself but I really love seeing all the different influences from the different regions where the artists learned and who influenced them and how it comes out in their work

  6. Well, I shall be moving on soon to an exhibition in California, so hopefully that will be just as interesting.

  7. I have a print that is signed by whistler. Its battersea in blue and gold. Appears to be aquatint or stone lithograph. It is signed Whistler at the bottom. The print has very small unrecognizable print that states published by Brown-Robertson co NY.
    Any reason why the Gallery would hand sign Whistler name. Willing to send a picture

  8. By un-recognizable. Its only readable by a 30x lupe. Not by sight

  9. It's new to me but I don't know a lot about Whistler prints. A lot of galleries at the time were publishers of prints but they would get the artist to sign the work. Does it have Whistler's butterfly chop? But, yes, please send a picture to

  10. Hi Haji. Not butterfly... I will send print Its very old.